The Quest for “Immorbidity”: What If You Could Live a Long Life—Disease-Free?

By: Marisa Cohen

Can you guess what the word “immorbidity” means?

It’s a term that Johnson & Johnson coined to describe a long-lived life—think 100 years and older—without any of the diseases that typically come with age, like Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

If it sounds like the makings of a fantastical sci-fi film, it’s not. Just ask Victor Dzau, M.D., President of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), an organization whose mission it is to improve health for all by advancing science, accelerating health equity and providing evidence-based advice.

He has big goals for the science of healthy aging in 2020, which is why he’s teamed up with Johnson & Johnson on a three-year collaboration with the NAM to sponsor the new U.S. Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards.

The global competition, which kicks off this month, will award up to 450 Catalyst Awards of $50,000 each to healthcare innovators with promising ideas for healthy aging in every area of medicine, science and technology. In the second phase of the competition, beginning in 2021, some winners will also receive funding and residencies at one of 13 Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS health incubator locations around the world, where they will have access to cutting-edge resources to help bring their innovations to life.

In 2023, one or more Grand Prize winners will be named—and awarded up to $5 million to help make their bold ideas a reality.

So what does the futuristic field of immorbidity hold? We sat down with Dr. Dzau to find out.

Q: What inspired the idea for the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards?

A: At the NAM, one of our mandates is to inspire by creating audacious goals and tackling globally important issues. We want to highlight the fact that as people are living longer, the grand challenge is increasing their healthspans—the length of their lives spent in good health.

We feel that if you can be healthy, it’s an opportunity to not only live a good life, but to continue to contribute to society.

Q: What will the judges look for in a winning entry?

A: Ideas that have the potential to be breakthroughs. If you think about the world of technology, that’s where it really happens, right?

For example, years ago, people would never have believed what we can do today with smartphones. That’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking we’re looking for.

These awards are not traditional grants. They’re really more innovation awards, which give people seed money to get started with their ideas. So we’re not going to ask for a lot of primary data—instead, we’re going to judge how good the idea is.

We are really looking for people who are willing to take risks. Winning projects will make us say, Whoa, this is a new way of looking at things!

Q: Are there particular areas of healthy aging innovation you’re really interested in?

A: When you look at the science of aging, it’s interfaced with many different disciplines. You’re dealing with medical concerns, of course, but also engineering, technology and the digital world.

The new technology is amazing, whether it’s robotics, artificial intelligence, medical research, biomarkers, new treatments—you name it. So the timing of this contest is great, because I think we are at an inflection point in terms of where science is and where we can begin to break through.

I’m also very interested in seeing what people propose in social science. That is going to be very important, because so many issues of elderly well-being are related to isolation and to lack of social connection.

So we’re looking for any field that’s relevant—and even better still would be a collaboration across the different fields.

Q: Why is Johnson & Johnson such an ideal partner for this collaboration?

A: I’ve been so impressed with William Hait, M.D., Ph.D., Global Head of Johnson & Johnson External Innovation, and his vision of creating a “World Without Disease” by eliminating disease through prevention, interception and cures—it’s exactly the idea we’re aiming to innovate around.In fact, at the very beginning of this collaboration, Johnson & Johnson told us, “We believe in this project so much, because this is what we’re trying to accomplish as well.”

Aging is a continual process, so we’re not just talking about innovations for people over 65—we want to improve physical, mental and social well-being throughout a person’s entire lifespanSo in that regard I think our philosophies fully align: We both want to find ways to avoid disease early. We both want people to get healthier early—and sustain good health as long as possible.

Q: How do you plan to get all these great ideas out into the world?

A: First, we are going to have an annual summit where we will bring together all the innovators to share their ideas. We want to look at what kind of progress they’re making, and get everybody excited about what’s going on.

Secondly, we are telling the applicants that the intellectual property is theirs. That’s really important, and it’s what I call “doing good and doing well.” We will be enabling people to do good, and at the same time they can create a business out of it and do well.

Really, we want people to say, “Aging research is cool and I want to be part of it.”

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