Most chronic health conditions, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer begin in middle age. When humans lived to the age of 55, that was not as big of a deal. But if you live well into your 90s, like many people do today, that can mean 50 years spent dealing with diseases that can significantly impact your enjoyment of life.
The current pandemic has also exposed how these chronic conditions can make some older adults more vulnerable to COVID-19. Experts have learned that having certain medical conditions — such as COPD, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune and kidney disease — can potentially increase the risk of severe illness.
As people age, the risk for many of these diseases increases, and as a result, the novel coronavirus can be devastating to older people. Because as we get older, our once finely tuned immune system can lose its elegant balance.
When a person becomes infected with a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, the body mounts an immune response against the virus. This is accompanied by an inflammatory reaction that manifests through such symptoms as a fever, chills, muscle aches and headaches.
In most healthy people, as the infection is brought under control and ultimately eliminated, the inflammatory response subsides. However, in some older people, or those whose immune system is already out of balance, the inflammatory component can continue or even accelerate, potentially creating life-threatening damage to important tissues.
As a physician of over 30 years, then head of pharmaceutical R&D of the world’s most broadly based healthcare company and now leading Johnson & Johnson’s efforts to identify and collaborate with the best innovators and entrepreneurs around the world, I envision that we can work to, ultimately, create a “world without disease”: a world in which people don't just have increased lifespans, but enjoy longer “healthspans,” or the number of years spent free of disease.
To get closer to realizing this vision — that we’ve termed “immorbidity,” a life free of disease — Johnson & Johnson Innovation became the principal corporate sponsor of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards in the United States, which is one component of a multi-year, multimillion - dollar international competition launched in January 2020. The Healthy Longevity Global Competition seeks to find innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs working on promising ideas that closely align with our joint vision.
Through this multi-year program led by the NAM, we’re aiming our collective strength to find — and provide grant funding to — new, disruptive ideas, technologies, products and models to help people live longer, healthier, happier lives; a gauntlet thrown to create a global movement to spark innovation with the aim to alleviate the challenges that our rapidly aging global population presents to economies, health systems and social structures, as well as the physical, mental and social well-being of individuals.
In the NAM’s U.S.-based competition alone, in this first phase of Catalyst Awards, nearly 500 applicants met the eligibility criteria, sharing innovative approaches that span science and clinical medicine, social science and public health, data and computer science and engineering. The contest’s review panel narrowed the entries and eventually awarded 21 Catalyst Awards in this initial round of the U.S. competition, alongside 133 further Catalyst Awards issued by the NAM’s global collaborator organizations to startups and innovators around the world.
It is exciting to see the bold approaches suggested for new therapies, health technologies and devices that promise to directly address conditions and diseases that limit our ability to enjoy life to its fullest.
The goal we’re pursuing jointly with NAM is to create a global movement that gets the world’s great minds thinking about how we can live free of disease. We are searching for ideas that will make people sit up and take notice. If you have innovative ideas in this area but haven’t yet had a chance to submit, watch out for a call to enter the next round of Catalyst Awards, due to launch in early 2021.
The combination of creativity and practicality we’ve seen in this first round is remarkable. It reminds us that if we are to achieve our vision of eliminating disease through preventing, intercepting and curing, continued collaborations with the world’s most innovative thinkers and boldest entrepreneurs will be the most promising route to liberating humankind from the burdens of debilitating disease.