Martin Borch Jensen was attending a small conference last year when Patrick Collison, the billionaire CEO of Stripe, got on stage to talk about Covid Fast Grants, the fund he co-launched in April 2020 to help researchers quickly pivot their work to address the pandemic.
Collison, economist Tyler Cowen, and bioengineer Patrick Hsu set up Fast Grants after it became clear that, despite the emerging crisis, many researchers were waiting months to get through the NIH’s bureaucratic grant process. They raised $50 million and funded trials on repurposed drugs, the development of saliva-based tests, and research on long covid, among other efforts.
And the trio became evangelists for alternative funding models in science.
Jensen, co-founder and CSO of the longevity biotech Gordian Biotechnology and a former postdoc at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, wondered if he could set up the same thing for his own field.
“A lot of the crazy ideas don’t get funding,” Jensen told Endpoints News. “There’s all these ideas that people have that could be really important but they either don’t apply or they apply and they don’t get funding.”
A year later, fast grants for aging have become a reality. Teaming with a couple of other prominent members of the insular longevity field — Laura Deming, co-founder of the Longevity Fund, is on the board — Jensen launched Longevity Impetus Grants this week. So far, he’s raised $26 million, which he plans to dole out to academics and non-profits in $10,000 to $500,000 increments.
As often is the case in the longevity field, the funding comes largely from wealthy individuals in the tech world. That includes Juan Benet, CEO of Protocol Labs, and Vitalik Buterin, the 27-year-old co-founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Applications open Monday but Jensen will continue to try to raise more.
Unlike with Covid, there is no burning crisis the grants are trying to address (although Jensen, like many in the longevity field, will talk at length about the crippling burden our rapidly aging world will place on its healthcare systems).
But Jensen and his reviewers, who are anonymous, will try to back ideas they say have been ignored by the traditional funding sources for aging work. And they will try to do so quickly, offering an abbreviated grant application and promising a decision within three weeks of submission. (A typical NIH grant review can involve 10-20 scientists and three separate phases).
Top funders mostly back only a handful of ideas that have already been proven to extend lives of lab, Jensen argued, such as caloric restriction and senescent cells, leaving other hypothesized aging and anti-aging mechanisms under-tested. For example, he said, research on the role the extracellular matrix — all the proteins, metabolites and other detritus floating outside the cell — plays in aging has gotten little attention.
In one major case, these entities are restricted in what they’re even allowed to back. National Institutes on Aging, one of the key sources for funding for academic longevity research, legally has to give a significant percentage of its grants to Alzheimer’s work, Deming noted.
“Often scientists have to twist their ideas into a pretzel to fit what funders want,” she said in an email.
Impetus, in theory, will be more open. The new effort comes amid a new surge of funding into longevity research. Google subsidiary Calico and AbbVie pledged another $1 billion for their anti-aging and cancer work. And over the past year, high-profile figures from Silicon Valley have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and recruited high-profile professors and biotech executives for Altos Labs, a company focused on reprogramming cells to make them “younger.”
On the government side, President Biden has proposed a new institute, called $6.5 billion ARPA-H, that would fund high-risk medical research. Much of it would focus on age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The grants initiative has been met with support from other prominent researchers in the anti-aging field. Harvard biologist David Sinclair, who showed he could rejuvenate neurons and restore vision in mice last year, said in an email the grants would help the longevity field continue to accelerate at its “increasingly fast pace.”
Paul Robbins, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota, said the aging field has long needed a funding mechanism for risky research that isn’t driven by a single hypothesis. He hopes Impetus will fund research on cellular reprogramming or efforts to analyzing centenarians and supercentenarians (people over 110) for genetic clues that turn into drug targets.
“However, like any granting agency, the process depends upon the qualifications and biases of the review group,” he said in an email. “Will be interesting to see what types of grants are funded initially.”
Jensen notes that many of the key findings in longevity, including reprogramming and epigenetic “clocks” to compute a person’s age and disease risk, were done without grant money.
He also noted that replication receives little backing because it’s viewed as less glamorous or novel than original studies. He hopes to back studies that determine whether one of the many things scientists have learned extend mouse or worm life actually work in other animals.
Both Jensen and Robbins said they’d like to see work on a biomarker for aging, long one of the holy grails of aging research.
Because a trial directly testing whether a molecule actually extended healthy people’s lives would take far too long, the future of drug development for aging will depend on whether a scientist or a company can prove that some protein or DNA mark correlates directly with enhanced longevity.
Companies could then simply prove their drug significantly changed that marker, in the same way, cardiovascular biotechs can win an approval based on lower cholesterol, rather than waiting to see if their molecule stops heart attacks.
Research in the field is still early, though, making it an unattractive candidate to many funders. But a breakthrough could get the ball rolling.
“Oftentimes it’s like, ‘No, I don’t believe it until someone does it,” Jensen said, describing the NIH’s attitude. With the new grants, “you can do it and then shove it in people’s faces.”
The article has been updated to correct the spelling of Patrick Collison.