Saudi Arabia Is Dangling Billions for Research on Aging. Scientists Are Lining Up to Take It. | Mint

Saudi Is Dangling Billions for Research on Aging. Scientists Line Up to Take It.

Hevolution’s chief executive, Dr. Mehmood Khan, says he wants to expand longevity research globally and pursue as many promising opportunities as possible.
Hevolution’s chief executive, Dr. Mehmood Khan, says he wants to expand longevity research globally and pursue as many promising opportunities as possible.

Summary

  • The kingdom’s plans to put more than $1 billion a year into global efforts on longevity stir anticipation—and hesitation around the country’s politics

Vast oil wealth has enabled Saudi Arabia to establish dominant roles in global sports, electric cars and tech startups. The kingdom’s next target may be its most ambitious yet: extending the human lifespan.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, has allocated more than a billion dollars a year to an effort called Hevolution Foundation to develop new treatments for aging. That could dramatically expand the available global funding for research on longevity biology, which now comes mainly from the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

The prospect of a huge surge of funding into the area, whose budgets pale in comparison to research on diseases like cancer, is causing a stir among scientists who study aging.

“People in the field are kind of holding their breath to see how the money is going to be spent," says Steven Austad, a researcher on aging at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and senior scientific director at the American Federation for Aging Research, or AFAR, a U.S. nonprofit that has received $7.76 million in funding from Hevolution.

The Saudi foundation’s chief executive, Dr. Mehmood Khan, says much of the initial grant money is likely to end up at universities and startups in the U.S., where scientists are trying to develop treatments that slow, prevent or even reverse the aging process for humans.

“It’s creating a more idealized funding situation," says Martin Borch Jensen, chief scientific officer of San Francisco-based Gordian Biotechnology and president of Norn Group, a U.S. nonprofit with a grant program to which Hevolution has contributed $7 million.

For now, Hevolution’s biggest challenge is how to spend its money in a field that is still relatively small and in a world where many view anything Saudi Arabia does with suspicion.

Some institutions and individual researchers have been hesitant to establish ties with an absolute monarchy that brooks no dissent domestically and was spurned by the West after the killing and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Recent injections of Saudi cash into U.S. golf and global soccer have sparked accusations that the kingdom is deploying its wealth to paper over human-rights abuses and boost its global image. Hevolution could face similar criticism but, still in its early stages, the project hasn’t attracted broad attention.

AFAR’s board had repeated discussions before accepting Saudi funding last year for 18 research projects in aging biology or geroscience but has since renewed its partnership for a second round of grants, according to officials there.

“In the beginning, people were skeptical, but I think a lot of that has kind of gone away because they see that we’re giving out the money," says Stephanie Lederman, AFAR’s executive director. “We want to fund this science, it’s really important for the human race."

Dr. Aditi Gurkar, an assistant professor of medicine at the Aging Institute, University of Pittsburgh, says she paused before applying for an AFAR grant funded by Hevolution but ultimately went ahead because of the Saudi organization’s collaborative and global approach to aging science. In April, she received a $375,000 grant to study with a physicist how nanoparticles could help detect cell senescence, a process in which cells stop dividing. It’s an innovative idea that she says would be difficult to secure funding for from traditional sources in the U.S.

When Norn Group announced Hevolution funding, some people objected to the Saudi ties, Jensen says, but he pushed past it because the organizations share a common goal.

“Our focus is on achieving that mission and improving human health and flourishing, which we’re committed to whatever the state of public opinion," he says.

There is also some concern that the Middle East’s turbulent politics or a sharp change in the Saudi crown prince’s personal predilections could cut off funding unexpectedly.

Hevolution—whose name is a combo of “health" and “evolution"—aims to have a global impact, as Saudi Arabia looks to expand its influence around the world under its 37-year-old leader. Its mission could also resonate at home, where Mohammed has staked his credibility on boosting quality of life for a now overwhelmingly young population and building new industries away from oil.

The Saudi media ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment from the prince.

Established as a nonprofit in 2018 by Saudi royal decree, Hevolution doesn’t conduct its own research but instead aims to work with established institutions to pump money into underfunded areas of study. Its chief scientific officer, Dr. Felipe Sierra, ran the aging biology division at the NIA for more than a decade, and its scientific advisory board includes Dr. Thomas Rando, who directs the stem-cell research center at University of California, Los Angeles.

“We’re sort of doing the nontraditional approach. Who else might be able to solve the problem?" says Khan, the chief executive. “One of our goals is to actually attract new scientists—in terms of entering science—and scientists from adjacent fields that may not have data but their technologies could be relevant to solving."

Since starting operations in July 2022, the Saudi foundation has focused mostly on establishing itself, dispersing less than $20 million. Khan expects that to ramp up toward $1 billion within the next two to four years. Initially, more of that money will go to research, but eventually the goal is for a roughly even split with investments into antiaging startups, he says.

Khan, who was chief scientific officer at PepsiCo, where he worked for more than a decade, says he wants to expand the field globally and pursue as many promising opportunities as possible. “We’re not saying epigenetic reprogramming is our first priority or autophagy is our first priority or senescence is our first priority," he says, referring to three cellular processes that many scientists link to aging. “We’re looking at all of them."

He would like to see Hevolution help identify biomarkers to track aging and also fund early large-scale human trials for existing repurposed drugs to treat aging. Those are two crucial areas that require substantial funding and are unlikely to generate quick profits.

Khan was born in Pakistan and grew up in England before moving to the U.S. He spent 1987 in Saudi Arabia and helped set up a medical residency program at the kingdom’s leading hospital, where Saudi rulers receive treatment. He later worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“There’s a lot of snake oil" in the field, says Khan, 65, who also ran Boston-based biotech startup Life Biosciences for two years before joining Hevolution. “There’s loads of claims, and one of the things we always have to ask ourselves is ‘What is this based on, and is it legitimate? Is it anchored in real science?’"

Hevolution recently hired two investment partners and plans to announce its first direct investment before the end of the year after reviewing over 100 potential opportunities. It has registered a nonprofit entity in the U.S. and a limited liability corporation with an office planned for Boston and others to follow in Europe and Asia.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

topics

MINT SPECIALS

Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App