George Washington University Professor David Mendelowitz is competing against scientists from around the world in a race against time. He and his team of researchers would receive up to $1 million from a group of Silicon Valley-based investors if they “crack the aging code.”
The Palo Alto Longevity Prize is a life science competition created by former Washingtonian Joon Yun, a radiologist and president of Palo Alto Investors. Dr. Yun is hoping the contest, which launched Sept. 9, will lead to scientific innovations that reduce diseases associated with aging and increase human life expectancy.
“I feel like it is inevitable that we’re going to solve aging. All we’re really doing is pulling up the timeline,” Dr. Yun says in a video on the Longevity Prize website.
The prize is privately sponsored by the Palo Alto Institute and split into two $500,000 awards. The first will go to the team that can successfully “restore homeostatic capacity” in an animal (using heart rate variability as a biomarker).
Homeostatic capacity, according to Dr. Yun, is the capability of systems in the body to self-stabilize in response to stressors. When we are young, homeostatic capacity maintains elevated blood glucose and blood pressure at healthy levels. As people age, stress levels in the nervous system increase, and it becomes more difficult for the body to recover from an injury or an illness.
The second $500,000 prize will be awarded to the scientists who can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent of acceptable published norms. Teams may compete for one or both prizes.
Dr. Mendelowitz, a professor of pharmacology and physiology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, believes that a key to slowing the aging process is to reduce the body’s response to daily stress.
He studies the autonomic nervous system, a primitive part of the brain that regulates functions of internal organs, such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The system is divided into two components: parasympathetic and sympathetic activity.
“The sympathetic system is activated when you’re in fight or flight mode—when you think you ran over your neighbor’s cat or you realize you have an exam in two hours, and you haven’t studied. It increases your heart rate,” Dr. Mendelowitz said. “The parasympathetic system is activated when you’re reading a book in the library, and you’re relaxed.”
Humans are likely born with a good balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, Dr. Mendelowitz said. But as we get older and face more stress, sympathetic activity increases, putting people at high risk for sudden cardiac death, arrhythmias, high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases. Dr. Mendelowitz’s lab is primarily interested in finding ways to preserve parasympathetic activity, particularly to the heart.
“If you can retain that healthy, subdued heart rate as you get older, that can have many profound health benefits,” he said.
Dr. Mendelowitz and his team of researchers are one of 11 groups who have signed up in the Longevity Prize competition. Teams have until June 15, 2015, to apply to the contest. The deadline for the homeostatic capacity prize, which Dr. Mendelowitz’s lab is competing for, is June 15, 2016.
Dr. Mendelowitz’s team is studying the neurons in the brain that generate parasympathetic activity in the heart. By understanding which receptors or transmitters depress the parasympathetic system as we age, they hope to identify approaches to reverse this process.
“We are trying to understand if there are ways to restore the balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, and to re-excite these neurons that are firing less often with cardiovascular diseases or as we age,” Dr. Mendelowitz said.
To win the Longevity Prize, Dr. Mendelowitz’s team will need to prove that it has improved heart rate variability (HRV) in a test animal—for instance, showing that an older mouse has a heart rate similar to that of a younger one. HRV, which is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, indicates the moment-to-moment changes in heart rate. Research has linked high HRV to good health and low HRV to stress, fatigue and many cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Mendelowitz said he already has promising preliminary data on parasympathetic activity that his team is excited to pursue. If he does win the Longevity Prize, the money will go toward further research and will give his lab more flexibility in long-term projects.
“NIH funding is extremely competitive now, so people feel like they need to produce results immediately. This prize has allowed some people, myself included, to take a look at the bigger picture and to ask what could be important six years down the line rather than six months,” Dr. Mendelowitz said. “And every scientist loves a challenge.”