Big Data will play major role as Venter’s team sets out to build world’s largest database of human genotypes, microbiomes and phenotypes
For the second time in recent months, another prominent figure has declared his intention to crack the code of human aging. This time it is scientist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., known for his role in sequencing the first whole human genome.
Venter will pursue this goal through a brand new company he launched, called Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI), based in La Jolla, California.
Human Longevity, Inc. Will Compete Against Calico
This is a noteworthy development. Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers already know Venter’s competition in this race is a company called Calico that was founded by several entrepreneurs linked to Google.
Venter’s new company will leverage “Big Data” to gain insights about the molecular causes of aging and age-related illnesses, like cancer and heart disease, according to a report published by the New York Times.
Ambitious Goals of Human Longevity, Inc.
Slowing aging, if possible, could be a way to prevent many diseases, rather than treating them one disease at a time, noted the New York Times report. “Using the combined power of our core areas of expertise−genomics, informatics, and stem cell therapies, we are tackling one of the greatest medical/scientific and societal challenges−aging and age-related diseases,” stated Venter in a HLI press release.
“HLI is going to change the way medicine is practiced by helping to shift to a more preventive, genomic-based medicine model, which we believe will lower healthcare costs,” he continued. “Our goal is not necessarily lengthening life, but extending a healthier, high-performing, more productive lifespan.”
‘Big Data’ to Provide Insights to Causes of Age-Related Diseases
Initially, this new antiaging research initiative will have the capability to sequence up to 40,000 human genomes annually. Two Illumina HiSeq X Ten sequencing systems will be used. The huge amount of DNA data generated for individuals sequenced will be merged with their health and body composition data to hopefully gain insight to the molecular causes of human aging and aging-related diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
At this high rate of sequencing production, Illumina, the San Diego-based developer of the HiSeq X Ten sequencing system, estimates the cost of a human genome at about $1,000 each. (See Dark Daily, “llumina Asserts Its Claim of a $1,000 Whole Human Genome, But Is Gene Sequencing Ready for Use by Clinical Pathology Laboratories?”, February 21, 2014.)
HLI plans to buy three more HiSeq X Ten’s at a cost of $10 million each, which would enable the company to rapidly scale up and sequence 100,000 human genomes yearly, according to the HLI press release.
$70 Million Available to Build World’s Database of Human Genomes
Venter’s new research venture has raised $70 million, mostly from wealthy individuals. Significant investments were made by Malaysian billionaire K.T. Lim, operator of the gambling conglomerate Genting Berhad (ORN: GEBHY), as well as Illumina. The company’s goal is to build the largest human sequencing operation in the world.
Best remembered for heading the privately funded side of the race to sequence the first human genome, Venter serves as HLI Executive Chairman/CEO and also is founder and head of two research institutions, the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit, genomic research organization with facilities in Rockville, Maryland, and La Jolla; and Synthetic Genomics, Inc., a private company that is commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address new sources of energy, food and nutritional products, and next-generation vaccines.
Venter told the New York Times that HLI plans to compile the most comprehensive human genotype, microbiome, and phenotype database in the world. It will sequence the genomes of both healthy and sick individuals of all ages, from infants to centenarians, as well as their microbiomes−the microbes living on and in them. The company has also contracted with Metabolon, a diagnostic services company based in Durham, North Carolina, that offers a patented biochemical profiling platform, to measure chemicals in subjects’ blood.
How Realistic is Human Longevity’s Goals?
It is unclear how quickly HLI data analysis will yield insights to diseases and aging or how this information will generate profits. Venter said that the company plans to sell its data to pharmaceutical companies to benefit creation of novel drugs and diagnostic tests.
With the cost of sequencing falling, The New York Times report suggested that HLI may have difficulty maintaining a proprietary edge, as other companies and academic institutions are doing similar genomic studies. And while Venter’s claim that HLI will have the greatest sequencing capacity in the nation, there are other challengers for that claim. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technolog’s Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, comes close, as it recently bought the equivalent of 1.4 Illumina X Ten systems.
The establishment of HLI comes on the heels of the launch of Calico−short for California Life Company, another anti-aging research company created by Google’s founders, Larry Page, Bill Maris and Sergey Brin. Calico is headed by former Genentech CEO Arthur D. Levinson. (See Dark Daily, “Google’s Calico Start-up to Sequence Whole Human Genomes of Healthy 100-Year-Olds in Project to Solve Puzzle of Human Aging,” March 26, 2104.)
Future Benefits Anti-aging Research May Hold for Laboratory Medicine
HLI is yet another effort to leverage genomics research to attain the age-old desire of prolonging human life. While research by ventures such as HLI and Calico are unlikely to lead to diagnostic or medical laboratory tests in the near term, over time, these efforts may provide a better understanding of the dynamics of human aging.
—by Patricia Kirk