The Greatest Race: X Prize Enlists Elders in Quest for Vitality

The Greatest Race: X Prize Enlists Elders in Quest for Vitality

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Photo: Saburo Shochi, 105, is the kind of healthy centenarian researchers are seeking to donate their DNA for the X Prize. The oldest international member of the Gerontological Society of America, Dr. Shochi demonstrated his exercise regimen for seniors to reporters at the society’s Boston conference. (Image courtesy of Araceli Martinez/La Opiñion).

BOSTON -- Where better to search for the fountain of youth than in the genes of the oldest people on Earth?

The futuristic Archon Genomics X Prize will conduct a global quest for 100 centenarians, who will allow sequencing of their complete genomes as part of the latest $10 million X Prize competition, according to Grant Campany, senior director of the contest.

Fittingly, Campany announced the expansion of the search Monday during the national conference of the Gerontological Society of America. A coalition of research groups from Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan and Australia will aid in the hunt for participants.

Is There a Longevity Gene?

The goal of the prize is to find a research team to build a quick and inexpensive technology to accurately sequence 100 complete human genomes in just 30 days. And by using a group of centenarians, researchers may get closer to understanding whether there is a “longevity gene,” a magic key that helped the participants survive for a century or more.

“In January 2013, teams from around the world will be getting vials of DNA from each of the 100 people we are sampling, and they are given 30 days to sequence the genomes,” said Campany.

To win, the teams must accurately sequence all 100 human genomes for the centenarians. In return, the winning team will receive $10 million in the contest, which is sponsored by Medco.

In addition to the potential of finding a veritable fountain of youth, the competition provides an unprecedented opportunity to identify potentially “rare genes” that might protect people from disease and add to the scientific understanding of longevity.

The organizers expect eight to 10 teams to compete, using different technologies to sequence the same genomes, according to Larry Kedes, co-chair of the scientific advisory board for the competition.

“It will give us a very deep insight into what systematic errors may exist in certain technologies and why people made mistakes in the genome sequencing,” he said. “And it will allow the genomics community to very quickly determine what the true sequence is among the multiply sequenced genomes.”

Kedes said the project should produce a near “letter perfect” set of genomes, something that doesn’t exist today.

Pioneers

The first elder to volunteer was George Eberhardt, 107, from Chester, N.J. Eberhardt spent his career as an engineer at Bell Labs helping to develop telephone communications between continents.

He said his favorite decade was the 1920s because it was a period of rapid technological advancement and the country was thriving.

The selection of the final 100 participants only began a few weeks ago, according to Campany. Selection of people who are among the world’s oldest was a critical factor for Thomas Perls, MD, founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study.

“Many of these subjects are what I consider living historical treasures,” Perls said. “You can go to a person like this and ask them what the last hundred years have been like and they will tell.”

He has been studying centenarians since 1995, and views them as a window into how to escape or delay age-related diseases.

“Many people say the older you get the sicker you get,” Perls said. “But in fact, our research has shown that among centenarians the average onset of disability is 93 years. They may have certain illnesses, but they seem able to better deal with those than others in the general population.”

Perls added, “As you get to 105 and 110 years old, these people markedly compress the time that they have disability or have disease to the very end of their lives.”

He noted, "The X Prize is going to facilitate the start of getting into the genetics that gets at this tremendous survival advantage.”

“We really need an initial push like this to get the ball rolling,” Perls said.

Pamela MacLean wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New American Media and the Gerontological Society of America. This article first appeared at RedwoodAge.com, where she is a senior editor.