Saudi Arabia is investing $1 billion per year into a pioneering new mega research organization that aims to find and fund innovative ways to “decelerate” the aging process and extend the number of years people live in good health.

The Hevolution Foundation – overseen by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees – aims to put Saudi Arabia on the map for research projects into extending the human lifespan.

In the first ever media interview, Hevolution Foundation CEO Dr. Mehmood Khan told Al Arabiya English that the initiative aims to be the first non-profit to pursue age-related therapeutic breakthroughs. It is committed to funding global scientific discovery, and investing in private companies and entrepreneurs who are dedicated to advancing aging science.

“By accelerating scientific research, we can actually decelerate aging and its consequences,” Khan told Al Arabiya English. “We see aging as the second-most pressing challenge to humanity, after climate change.”

He continued, “Worldwide, the experience of aging is not improving very much. The average lifespan has risen dramatically over the past century or so, but the number of people with chronic diseases has also risen. We are living longer, but not necessarily better.”

Created by Saudi Royal Order

Khan said the Hevolution Foundation was created via a Royal Order in Saudi Arabia in 2018, marking the organization’s official founding. The organization was unveiled in June 2022.

The logo of the Hevolution Foundation. (Supplied)
The logo of the Hevolution Foundation. (Supplied)

The core message behind the foundation, he said, is having a “laser-like focus on dramatically improving a condition that affects every human on the planet: aging,” with the belief that every human has the right to live a longer, healthier life.

As Khan explained, the “graying” of society – meaning increased life expectancy – is already well underway across world, including the US, Canada, Japan, S. Korea, China, much of Europe, and parts of the MENA region. Consequently, the global population is increasingly burdened by age-related diseases and conditions.

“Our mission is to address this trend with a preventative approach: by expanding our understanding of the processes of aging, toward finding a way to decelerate it,” Khan said. “Research into the biology of aging is relatively new, and extremely fragmented, with limited funding and a lack of centralization and coordination.”

From stem cell research, to modifying age-limiting conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, to unlocking the regenerative capacity to reverse age-related changes in the body, targeting human aging with new therapies and medicines is a big business.

The Hevolution Foundation will fund scientific research and development to increase the number of healthspan drugs and maximize their accessibility to all people. It will also invest in potential drugs at early trial stages to accelerate drug discovery and shorten the time it takes to move such drugs into the clinic.

“All in all, the Hevolution Foundation aims to significantly increase aging research and to accelerate the discovery of direct solutions for aging and age-related diseases, which in turn will have an enormous positive impact on human quality of life, global healthcare systems and the economy,” Khan said.

A billion-dollar budget

The foundation’s annual budget is $1 billion to accelerate science and bring therapies to the market. According to Khan, the massive project’s “audacious undertaking,” can be likened to the Human Genome Project (HGP).

HGP is an international scientific research project launched 22 years ago with the goal of determining the base pairs that make up human DNA, and of identifying, mapping and sequencing all of the genes of the human genome from both a physical and a functional standpoint.

It remains the world’s largest collaborative biological project.

“Despite the enormity of the challenge, the huge budget and the time it took to complete [13 years and billions of dollars], it has enabled the discovery of hundreds of disease genes, and many breakthrough medicines are now in development because of research spurred by those discoveries,” Khan said.

Like the Human Genome Project, the Hevolution Foundation not only plans to fund research in the field of aging, but also to be an open knowledge platform for independent research, science, and entrepreneurship.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on December 14, 2021. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on December 14, 2021. (AFP)

It aims to ultimately be a platform to build connections between scientists, innovators and international aging research centers, build aging-related knowledge, and eventually increase the number of inventions and innovations focused on expanding the healthy period of lifespan, called ‘healthspan’; a term coined by the Foundation’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Felipe Sierra.

“We believe that this is an ambitious approach which requires tremendous collaboration, focus, and budget, but all big projects require the same,” Khan said.

Through the foundation, Saudi Arabia aims to become a knowledge hub for anti-aging research.

As Khan explains, the demographic ‘age wave’ in the industrialized world presents a serious economic challenge.

For example, in the US, the elderly share of the population, which was approximately 12 percent in the year 2000, is projected to grow to 22 percent by 2050.

“That, coupled with a decline in birth rates across much of the world means there will be too few young people supporting the elderly and infirm,” Khan said. “So, it is vitally necessary to expand healthspan to enable people to remain healthy and productive in their golden years.”

He continued, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can become a leader in the field of aging research in a variety of interlinked ways: by contributing to global healthspan research and development via both grants and investments; by funding breakthroughs to tackle age-related diseases and conditions that are particularly pronounced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and by catalyzing the wider biotech and life sciences ecosystem here.”

Reversing the signs of aging

Khan said the Hevolution Foundation differs from other groups that invest in life sciences as they have both a science team and investment team that aims to not just to treat the aging process – but stop it, or even reverse it.

“Our strong science team and a strong investment team work synergistically together, while also managing separate projects,” Khan explained. “These two teams of top professionals in their fields are able to identify breakthrough opportunities while de-risking our investments with top-notch scientific due diligence.”

He continued, “Given the breadth and depth of knowledge that we will be drawing on from both our scientific and investment teams, as well as our global network of experts, over time we anticipate becoming a ‘knowledge engine,’ with a broad portfolio of investments and grant recipients in the field of aging research.”

Khan also said the foundation’s approach differs from other groups in that “we are focused on facilitating the development of interventions that target the underlying mechanisms of aging, rather than just treating its manifestation or side-effects.”

He also said the foundation wants to develop the “right incentives” for researchers, academic institutions, professional organizations, entrepreneurs and governments “to accelerate aging research and development.

From stem cell research, to modifying age-limiting conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson's disease, to unlocking the regenerative capacity to reverse age-related changes in the body, targeting human aging with new therapies and medicines is a big business. (File photo: Unsplash)
From stem cell research, to modifying age-limiting conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, to unlocking the regenerative capacity to reverse age-related changes in the body, targeting human aging with new therapies and medicines is a big business. (File photo: Unsplash)

As with other foundations, the Hevolution Foundation will go through a rigorous evaluation process with respect to grants, according to Khan.

The process will be led by a doctor who previously served as Director of the US National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology, and his scientific team.

Other members of the foundation’s board include Saudi Arabia’s Princess Dr. Haya bint Khaled Al Saud, the foundation’s vice president of impact and insight, who is also the director of the Saudi National Center for Genomics Technology, and Saudi’s Eng. Ibrahim al-Suwaiyel, the vice president of operations at the foundation, who has also served as COO for the Saudi Tourism Development Fund.

“Issuing grants is a key pillar of our organizational strategy and will help us reach our goal of dramatically improving aging, a condition that affects every person on the planet,” Khan said. “Our grant program is part of our plan to build, promote and protect the right incentives, as mentioned above, for researchers, academic institutions, and others.”

Just weeks after its launch, Khan said the Foundation is making the shift into being fully operational.

“We look forward to backing cutting-edge research in a variety of scientific fields related to aging,” he said. “We are currently evaluating some exciting projects and are eagerly anticipating making our first investments and issuing our first grants in the coming months.”

Impact on the GCC

The Foundation aims to have lasting impacts on every corner of the planet; but will be keenly felt in the GCC, where evidence suggest that the population is “aging faster biologically than they are chronologically,” said Khan.

Despite the region having one of the youngest populations in the world, people in the GCC suffer higher mortality rates from chronic life-limiting conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

In Saudi Arabia, a report of the Saudi Scientific Diabetes Society indicated that more than 50 percent of patients with diabetes die due to cardiovascular causes, while the Kingdom globally ranks among the top 10 countries in the prevalence of diabetes.

“One of our key goals is healthspan equity and we will devote the resources needed to achieve it,” Khan said. “This region, with a long history of science and medicine, as well as current age-related health risks, could be the catalyst for a transformation in healthspan worldwide.”

In terms of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom already has an advanced healthcare system that is undergoing substantial investment and development under the Saudi Vision 2030 Health Sector Transformation Program.

The Hevolution Foundation’s work is focused on projects and investments that will bring further benefits to the Vision 2030 plan in the long-term,” Khan said, adding, “One could argue that these two are intrinsically linked.”

“Our short-term aim is to invest in promising science and technologies that can be moved to the market in relatively short order. We also want to raise awareness of the importance of studying aging science by playing a catalyst role in the field,” he said.

“Longer-term we hope to facilitate the development of an intervention or treatment that targets the underlying mechanisms of aging all the way through the regulatory review process and into the clinic.”

Meanwhile, the foundation “would like to stimulate funding for aging and healthspan research from other sources worldwide. If in ten years’ time we find that the resources we are deploying into such research is just a small portion of the global total, we will consider that a huge success.