[updated May 26, 2022]
A major new longevity science-focused foundation has been announced. It had been rumored and hinted at by Nir Barzilai and others over the past year that major Middle East money would be the source for the funding for the $40 million TAME study. At the same time there has also been some excitement around the formation of the Hevolution Foundation, a Saudi-backed non-profit that will “provide investments in biotech to incentivize healthspan science across disciplines and borders.” Details are still sparse, but it is apparent that these two developments are likely the same thing and Hevolution is funded with $ Billions of dollars (rumored to be as much as $20 Billion). To put this in perspective, the National Institutes of Health puts only about $300 million/year into the basic biology of aging research (The Division of Aging Biology) and most of that has been on Alzheimers research which has yielded little. Only around $5 million a year is put into the NIA ITP program that tests new compounds for anti-aging effects, the most interesting and promising project in the entire NIA for healthy longevity.
If the rumors are accurate this will be, by far, the biggest funding for longevity science ever attempted. Depending on the exact yearly budget allocation/investment plan this single foundation could be investing many times more each year than the entire US government does in the biology of aging. So this is a really, really big deal. And, finally the required translational human clinical trials for all the successful examples of “drugs extending animal lifespan” studies (e.g. rapamycin, canagliflozin, acarbose, metformin etc.) may get the needed funding to see conclusively if they also work in humans as we expect.
At the American Aging Association Annual Conference in San Antonio today (May 18, 2022), Felipe Sierra (who was the Director, Division of Aging Biology, National Institute on Aging, NIH, but who now seems to have taken over the role of Chief Scientific Officer at the Hevolution Foundation) officially introduced the new endowment for the Hevolution Foundation. The project was initiated (I suspect) at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohamad Bin Salman (MBS) and was pushed through by Royal Decree (the second of such decrees made in the last century, some people say). The formal launch of the foundation will be in a few week’s time.
The Hevolution Foundation aims to be positioned as a global leader, catalyst, partner, and convener, to increase the number of scientists entering the field, to increase the investable opportunities in the field of aging, to help shape the regulatory and government environment
“Its vision is to expand healthy human lifespan for the benefit of all humanity”
Their goals seem to be proactive prevention to keep people from getting sick. And also to address problems in the Geroscience field: insufficient funding, lack of coordination, the difficult regulatory environment, scientific uncertainty (needed research), lack of public awareness. And they will fund research.
The organization itself is a nonprofit. They are still determining big-picture matters such as whether they will form an institute. The name is based on: Health + Evolution = The Hevolution Foundation. The leader of the project is: Dr. Mehmood Khan and he’s already participating in the Longevity Biotech Association. And, I suspect that Hevolution is the source of the $1 Billion investment in the new Longevity Science Foundation in Switzerland.
It will be interesting to see how this organization and its efforts progress. Will it ultimately look more like a non-profit “Softbank Vision Fund” for geroscience and longevity startups, or an aggressive and flexible “National Institute on Aging”? or an “Impetus Grants” organization on steroids? Or a completely new model?
The Good News
Billions of dollars are to be invested in geroscience research to translates the discoveries gained from animal research into therapies for humans. This is truly a huge benefit for humankind and will help move the needle of healthcare worldwide from “sick care” towards true “healthcare”, i.e. keeping people healthier, longer and not just waiting for people to get sick and then treating their diseases.
There are perhaps a dozen drugs and supplements that have, in rigorous studies, already been shown to increase lifespans and health spans in animals. This research has been done over the past decade, and been repeated by multiple labs. These life-extending compounds are revolutionary, but little to nothing has happened since then in the way of validating these compounds in humans. There is a vast unaddressed need for human clinical trials on these compounds (both individually, and in combination) to take them to the next level, to confirm that they work or do not work, in humans.
But in many cases these compounds are generic medications, so there is no financial incentive to do the expensive human clinical trials (but because they are generic, they would also be cheap and easily available for everyone). So to validate these longevity drugs in human clinical trials, and give people an additional 10, 20 or 30 years of healthy life, would be a huge development that would revolutionize healthcare.
The other good news is that it seems like they’ve recruited Felipe Sierra, who was the Director, Division of Aging Biology, National Institute on Aging, NIH. Given his focus at the NIA, he seems like a good hire that adds some gravitas to the team. While this organization is not well defined yet, it would be great to see some leaders with a mindset and track record more similar to Rick Klausner and Hal Barron of Altos Labs who have a history of moving biotech products into commercialization successfully. I hope they balance the team with some younger biotech executives who have more of a sense of urgency than the typical NIH employee. I love the NIH, but it just moves too slowly with far too much bureaucracy.
This new foundation has the potential to really amplify progress in the longevity biotech and longevity drug market, and by doing this begin the transition to a greater focus of healthcare systems on “prevention”. I suspect that all we need is one well-validated longevity drug, and the world’s healthcare systems and the NIH would be awakened to the idea that this is a viable and most cost-effective approach to improving healthy lifespans worldwide. After one longevity drug is confirmed, I believe that the national healthcare systems in all the developed countries will see that this path is the best path for improving its citizen’s health. At that point the vast amount of money that currently goes into disease-oriented sick care, can start to be transitioned into Longevity / Geroscience focused on optimizing health and disease prevention, and the process will speed up dramatically.
The Bad News
While I completely agree with the stated goals of the Hevolution Foundation, I am concerned about a few issues that may get in the way of the success of this new foundation.
While its great to see the large investment into the field, I really wish it could have come from a source with “cleaner hands” than MBS and the Saudi royal family; a group known much more for protecting their self-interests, and killing and imprisoning journalists, than they are for caring about the health and welfare of the rest of humanity. Given all the negative news on Saudi Arabia / Kashoggi, etc. over the past 4 years, there is a large segment of the US and European population that view MBS and Saudi Arabia very negatively. The most recent 2022 Gallup poll saw that only 5% of Americans had a “very favorable” view of Saudi Arabia while 65% of Americans had an unfavorable view. Only 20% of Americans trust MBS to do the right thing in world affairs (and most of that 20% are probably people who don’t follow the news). So, while its great that MBS has seen the potential for longevity science and is investing in it, the best thing he could do now if he wants Hevolution to succeed is to step far away from the organization and let smart people implement the vision. The greater the separation between the Hevolution Foundation and the Saudi Royal family / Saudi Arabia, and the more independent the foundation is, the greater its chance for success. Ideally Hevolution would be headquartered where the research is being done - in Europe or the USA - so that it can move fast, and work in close co-ordination with the researchers, and not be so linked to Saudi Arabia in people’s minds. Conversely, the more closely the Hevolution Foundation is associated with Saudi Arabia and MBS, the bigger the problems outlined below will be.
The only group less trusted than the Saudi government these days are Putin and the Russian oligarchs. And, as it turns out, there is also a strong Russian oligarch connection for the Hevolution Foundation. Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a sanctioned Russian oligarch and former KGB officer, identifies himself as a member of the Hevolution foundation’s Trustees on his UK House of Lords profile. The UK security services don’t trust Evgeny Lebedev; it was reported by The Sunday Times that British security services warned that granting Lebedev a peerage posed a national security risk but Boris Johnson went ahead with it despite the security service assessment. I hope that official news reporters will research what safeguards Hevolution has implemented so that the Russian oligarchs and Putin will not get early access to longevity therapeutics coming out of the organizations that the Hevolution Foundation funds.
And, really, could they have chosen a less inappropriate “public face” of the foundation? I mean choosing a former executive from Pepsico as the public-facing head of a health and longevity foundation is like if Mark Zuckerberg headed up a foundation who’s stated goal was minimizing the harm of social media and digital addiction by teenagers. While Dr. Kahn may be an excellent manager, the irony and negative symbolism of a former executive from Pepsi running a health and longevity foundation will not be lost on people (Pepsi’s products have probably done more to shorten people’s lives than all but those from Coke and Philip Morris - See Pepsi and the Obesity Epidemic). The optics are just bad, and makes the organization’s declared goals seem disingenuous. It would be best to have Felipe Sierra (or someone like him with public health credibility) as the public face of the organization and Dr. Kahn as the COO / Operational leader operating behind the scenes.
And to make things even more suspicious about the organization, if you look around at the cached pages of the Internet you can see that the Hevolution Foundation had a complete website that covered their organization up until recently, and that they have deleted that entire website and removed everything about it (almost) from the web.
Given the many critical and skeptical news stories we’ve already seen around the “Billionaires wanting to live forever” narrative for the Bezos, Thiel, Sergei Brin/Larry Page investments in biology of aging research, I’m sure the press (and some portion of the public) is going to have a field day with this new announcement. Hevolution had better hire a world class PR firm to try to spin away the “Dictators wanting to live forever” issue that has always come up when people point to potential downsides of longevity biotech and geroscience research. To improve public perceptions of Hevolution it would be beneficial to get some added investment from more trustworthy, reputable medical foundations, like The Gates Foundation, The Welcome Trust, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), etc. And, if Hevolution really wants to get ahead of the negative publicity, they should also make some serious, significant plans to preemptively address the inequality problem that is inherent in this research (perhaps working with some group like the Stanford Center for Longevity to do this, leverage existing analysis on pharma R&D and pricing, and also create country-by-country lifespan-oriented Gini coefficient). A large percent of the population is skeptical of the idea that longevity science benefits will “eventually” trickle down to the common person, or will do so very slowly, so a plan needs to address this issue and be publicized. While off-patent, small molecule drugs like rapamycin are inexpensive, many other very promising veins of longevity research like cellular reprogramming, gene therapy, stem cell treatments, and young blood factors/plasma dilution are more likely to be very expensive in clinical applications, and may not come down in price much over time.
People are also concerned about “unintended consequences” around longevity biotech. We see frequently that new technologies and innovations result in serious problems that were unanticipated, or ignored early on. The Internet was thought initially to level the playing field so that small businesses and individuals around the world could sell everywhere easily, but it instead greatly enabled the creation of monopolies, so companies like Amazon and Google dominate global e-commerce. Social media was developed with the goal of “building community and bringing the world closer together” but instead it frequently fosters deadly conflict and misinformation, and polarizes people with personalized information bubbles. What does society look like if the top 1% of the wealthiest have life expectancies that increase 10%, 30% or 60% faster than the life expectancy increases of the bottom 95% of the population? Prices for longevity technologies may come down over time, but the wealthy will repeatedly get the most effective and expensive therapies as they become available, so the “lifespan inequality gap” will always grow. And, of course, wealth inequality and lifespan inequality will be mutually reinforcing; the more money you have, the longer you live, the longer you live the more money you get… How long will it be before human society starts looking like that of the bee colony, where the queen bee lives 5 to 10 times longer than the worker bees? What if longevity science identifies a technology that will allow lifespans 10X longer, but costs $10 Million in medical procedures? What if monthly $50,000 “young blood transfusions” allowed 5X lifespan improvement? All indications are that lifespan inequality will quickly become a big problem unless specifically targeted early on. It would be prudent for Hevolution to put some significant investments into groups focused on identifying and modeling potential problems in longevity biotech at the macro level and identify solutions in advance, or find actions that obviate the problems. By doing so, the foundation would signal that they are taking their stated mission seriously, and not hiding behind it to justify MBS’s dreams of living forever.
The aforementioned issues and concerns will also likely negatively impact the Hevolution Foundation’s ability to partner with reputable organizations, and to engage, recruit/hire and motivate the PhDs and Postdocs doing the actual labwork and clinical trials to move the science forward. Its hard to keep people motivated if it looks like the true beneficiaries of geroscience research are most likely to be the guys on the Hevolution board of trustees, and their oligarch, monarch, and billionaire friends. The people who are driving the progress in the longevity field are a group of academics and researchers (many of whom are in California, Boston, London, Singapore, etc.) that tend to be liberal and left-leaning, and the geroscience and longevity biotech markets are hot (Altos Labs, and dozens of new startups are hiring a lot of people, and academic geroscience labs are busy filling the positions of people they’ve lost to the startup companies) so people can, and will, avoid Hevolution projects due to perceived negative associations. Leading geroscientists have many options in the longevity space right now and competition is fierce for talent. Why would any good geroscience researcher work with Hevolution and potentially tarnish their reputation, when they could go to Altos Labs and avoid the taint? Perhaps it will only be the 2nd and 3rd tier researchers that will take money or partner with Hevolution, because of the reputational risk. We will see…
Given that Hevolution seems to be a combination of the Saudi/oil money and the Russian Oligarch choices (because of the Oligarch-son, board member), it seems that this poll suggests that somewhere between 26.4% and 85% of researchers would be hesitant to take funding from the group.
I look forward to the investment in geroscience research, but I’m more than a little concerned about how this is going to play out in the press, and the court of public opinion, which is concerned about dictators, royalty and billionaires being the primary beneficiaries of this research. The increasing health and income inequality in society is a huge and urgent issue in the world today and many people are concerned that geroscience and longevity biotech may make the problem even worse, potentially by an order of magnitude. Public opinion is already largely negative on the issue of significant life extension via biotechnology and geroscience. Longevity science investments by the world’s aristocracy may make society much more volatile if the benefits are not distributed broadly. Most people probably wouldn’t accept a world where their lifespan varies in direct proportion to the size of their bank account. However, an early “win” with a positive clinical trial for a generic drug like rapamycin, metformin, or acarbose, because they are cheap and available, would go a long way in assuaging concerns, and in redeeming MBS/Hevolution, geroscience and longevity science in any detractor’s eyes and help build public and NIH/NHS support and momentum.
Ultimately some of these issues (e.g. dictators living longer) exist with or without geroscience research because the wealthy already have much better medical care (see Saudi Royal family spends $1.5 million for a health checkup at the Mayo Clinic). And the issue of who benefits (e.g many bad people with too much money, oligarchs, etc.) would come up no matter who funded the longevity or even more broadly any who benefits from any medical R&D. On the whole this investment could be a very positive development for most of humanity if it is managed well. The negatives are a matter of degree, not of kind (at least right now). Given that a number of the identified longevity compounds are already generic drugs, I have no question that the public at large has a potential to really benefit from them if they are proven as effective in humans as they are in animals.
If the Hevolution Foundation wants to be seen as focused on helping all humanity, and not just the vanity project of a prince, it needs to seriously invest and address the legitimate concerns that people have about geroscience research.
Humanity will also have to resolve any of the downsides that we do encounter and dictators are a problem today whether they live 70 or 120 years. Even today the children of dictators and royalty (e.g. Kim Jung Un in North Korea) frequently replace their elder family members, so dictatorships are an issue no matter how long the ruler’s life is.
June 7th, 2022 Update:
The MIT Technology Review has posted a new article on the Hevolution Foundation. See below:
But the publication doesn’t cover many of the problems and issues around the Hevolution Foundation’s board of trustees stacked with the royal family, billionaires, and the son of a Russian oligarch, as well as omissions in terms of addressing the open issues that the public is concerned about longevity research - like potential inequalities, unintended consequences, etc. I hope other publications cover these issues in more depth.