You already know that, as we grow older, we become more prone to many kinds of ailments: cancers, heart disease, dementia, and others. Any number of private foundations are sponsoring research targeting one or more of these age-related conditions. Less common, though, are foundations that are taking on the aging process itself.
The Larry Ellison Medical Foundation used to be a leader in this area, but pulled the plug on such research in late 2013, as we reported here.
But Ellison was never alone in his "war on death." And two funders still searching for a modern-day fountain of youth are the Methuselah Foundation and the SENS Research Foundation. Indeed, they are partnering on finding treatments that basically make older people young again.
Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, a researcher and self-described “anti-aging activist” named Aubrey De Grey intensively researched human aging. He was determined to figure out exactly how the a healthy young person’s body turns over time into a senior citizen’s body and why it loses much of its energy and vigor along the way.
He identified seven specific biochemical breakdowns that seem to lie behind it all: cell loss and tissue atrophy; cancerous cells; mitochondrial mutations; death-resistant cells; stiffening of the extracellular matrix; extracellular aggregates (buildup of toxins outside the cells); and intracellular aggregates (buildup of junk molecules inside the cells).
All the disorders and diseases that we associate with aging, he concluded, are really byproducts of these larger-scale breakdowns that cause our tissues to function less well and to die more quickly without replacement. He decided that the solution would be new forms of “regenerative medicine” that act to undo the breakdowns and bring back our body tissues’ original youthful vitality.
De Grey drew up a list of hypothetical medical treatments that could, if developed, one day undo each change (you can view the list in full here). And then he teamed up with David Sobel and launched Methuselah in 2003, with the aim of bringing each of these treatments to fruition.
Since then, De Grey and his cohorts have given millions to regenerative R&D research efforts of all shapes and sizes. Their giving starts with the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which offers $1.4 million or more to one recipient each year to conduct new regenerative medicine experiments on mice.
The foundation gives other, often bigger payouts to a few additional research projects here and there. In 2013, for example, it teamed up with Organovo, a biotechnology company, to give $500,000 to several “bioprinter” projects, which would use 3D printers to synthesize new skin and organ tissues. Also that year, it awarded $10,000 to University of Liverpool researcher Joao Pedro de Magelhaes to study the genome of the bowhead whale and attempt to figure out why this whale typically lives to be more than 200 years old.
The foundation’s website lists an email address to request more information on the Mouse Prize. There’s no indicated procedure, however, for seeking one of its other grants. The site doesn’t say how you may submit a grant proposal or a letter of inquiry. But neither does it say that you need a prior invitation to do so. So your best might be to make a call or drop a note to Methuselah’s headquarters in Springfield, VA, and see if there’s a place in its budget for your project.
SENS Research Foundation
De Grey and four other researcher colleagues banded together in 2009 and launched a second anti-aging institution, the SENS Research Foundation, in Mountain View, California. SENS—short for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence—conducts its own research into the seven age-related tissue damages on De Grey’s list and ways to fix them. And it offers grants, plus some technical support, to outside research institutions that are doing the same.
Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris got a SENS grant to look into the genetic mutations that appear over time in our DNA and cause the cells’ mitochondria, the organelle that breaks down proteins and produces energy, to fail. The university’s research team devised a way to induce the cells to use backup copies of their DNA to produce new mitochondrial proteins and keep the mitochondria running properly.
Another SENS grant went to Arizona State University to sponsor research on macular degeneration, a very common eye disease among the elderly. The Arizona State researchers traced the onset of some macular-degeneration cases to the accumulation of a toxin called A2E in the cells of the retina. The researchers successfully cleared A2E accumulations out by extracting certain enzymes from living microbes and injecting them into the retinal cells. The enzymes destroyed the A2E buildups on contact.
Unlike Methuselah, SENS does tell us up-front about how it gives out grants. Its science office looks for promising research initiatives, and when it finds one that it likes, it approaches the researchers to apply.
But it also accepts letters of inquiry from researchers who aren't yet on its radar screen. Just pay attention to the letter guidelines when you write one. And be sure to state clearly in your letter which of the seven age-related processes you are targeting, and how.
People have been trying to beat old age since the dawn of human civilization. Ancient societies all over the globe spun myths of fountains of youth and magical elixirs that could render a person immortal. De Grey and partners evidently believe that modern medical research could turn these myths into reality.
“We believe that a world free of age-related disease is possible,” the SENS Research Foundation’s website boldly states.
De Grey and partners are clearly an ambitious group. But let’s be honest: Who wouldn’t want to see them succeed? You’d have a hard time finding an adult who wouldn’t want to gain a few extra years—or maybe, a few extra decades—of healthy, active living.
At any rate, if you are engaged in scientific research that addresses how we might make that happen, these two foundations may want to hear from you.