By Aaron Krol
March 4, 2014 | In a media briefing hosted in San Diego, Calif., J. Craig Venter—best known as the man who raced against the international Human Genome Project to assemble the first whole human genome sequence in the early 2000s—today announced the opening of a new commercial company, Human Longevity, Inc., to apply genetic sequencing on a massive scale to some of the most intractable questions about human health and aging.
“Thirteen years ago it cost approximately one hundred million dollars and took nine months to sequence my genome,” said Venter in his announcement. “Today, the cost of sequencing, thanks to this tremendous technology change, is down to about a thousand dollars a genome, and we’re scaling up to do tens of thousands of genomes in the same timeframe.”
By “we,” Venter was not referring to the scientific community as a whole, but to Human Longevity, Inc. specifically. In a move that would be shocking from almost anyone else, Venter declared that his brand-new company's sheer sequencing power will be leapfrogging the world's best-established genomic research centers, such as the Broad Institute.
“We’re building the largest human genome sequencing center in the world, using the latest Illumina technology,” said Venter. The latest Illumina technology would be the famous “thousand-dollar genome” instrument, the HiSeq X, which at a pace of five whole human genomes a day is by far the fastest sequencer in existence. You can read more about the HiSeq X here, but the short version is that, while the instrument can indeed sequence a human genome for roughly a thousand dollars, it costs a million dollars to buy one—and you have to buy ten.
Human Longevity bought twenty.
This is made possible by a first round of investment funding totaling $70 million, which Venter expects will last the company through its first 18 months of operation. (Illumina, in fact, is one of the investors, which is perhaps unsurprising as the company has been banking on massive genomic studies to drive demand for ever more sequencers.) Venter announced that this initial funding will go toward building CLIA-certified labs and other facilities in San Diego, hiring the company's first hundred or so employees over the next year, and of course, the fabulous array of instruments that Human Longevity will rely on.
During the announcement, Venter surrounded himself with a motley panel of scientific luminaries who will be joining his enterprise: Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, who will serve as vice-chairman and co-founder; Bob Hariri, founder of stem cell bank LifebankUSA, who will also serve as vice-chairman and co-founder; David Brenner, Dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, and Scott Lippman, Director of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, both members of the Human Longevity advisory board; and Karen Nelson, one of the first researchers to apply a broad genomic approach to studying the human microbiome, who will head the company's Biome Health Division. With experts in genomics, stem cells, cancer, translational medicine, the microbiome, and general fostering of emerging technologies, the only obvious theme was sheer biomedical ambition—a sort of who's who of scientific fields that seem to hover perpetually on the cusp of delivering healthcare revolutions.
J. Craig Venter at the T.T. Chao Symposium on Innovation in 2011. Image credit: Mauricio Ramirez
All of these fields, in fact, will have some relevance to the Human Longevity mission. In addition to sequencing an anticipated 40,000 whole human genomes a year, Human Longevity will also be characterizing at least some participants' microbiomes, and, in partnership with Metabolon of North Carolina, their metabolomes, or the constantly changing array of small molecules present in the body. On top of that, said Venter, “we will be importing clinical records of every individual we're sequencing,” in order to bring on board crucial phenotypic data. (At over 100 human genomes sequenced every day, according to the proposed schedule, incorporating each individual's clinical history is sure to be a substantial engineering feat in its own right.)
The goal is to integrate this mass of data for new discoveries that can wed individuals' own genetic variants, the composition of their bacteria, the molecules in their blood, and most importantly, their medical histories. Venter stressed that his aim is to enable predictive and preventative medicine for healthy aging, discovering early warning signs for susceptibility to chronic illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer's, and heart disease, as well as new interventions tailored to each individual's distinct profile. “We think this will have a huge impact on changing the cost of medicine,” added Venter.
A longer-term goal is to translate some of this information into stem cell therapies, an application that ties Human Longevity to Venter's existing company, Synthetic Genomics. (Venter will continue as chairman and CEO of Synthetic Genomics as he takes up the mantle of executive chairman and CEO of Human Longevity.) Although details are hazy—as is the nature of details in stem cell therapy—Venter expects to use “techniques we've developed [at Synthetic Genomics]... to rewrite the genetic code of stem cells to correct errors, and use stem cell therapy as one of the key adjuvants to changing outcomes long-term.”
Although Human Longevity appears to be founded on a sort of magnetic attraction between much-hyped biomedical technologies that have yet to hit their stride, the sheer volume and diversity of data being assembled is sure to yield new insights, and it is probably not too much to hope that at least a few real clinical interventions will be sparked along the way. “It will be one of the largest data studies in the history of science and medicine,” said Venter—and while the statement was, shall we say, characteristically Venterian, it's also hard to dispute.
Also in classic J. Craig Venter fashion, the massive research project will be intimately joined to a commercial enterprise. “HLI is a commercial company,” said Venter, “because obviously this is a very expensive undertaking, and the only way to do that is to make the data so meaningful that it does have commercial value.” At least some of the revenue Human Longevity generates will come from selling access to the raw data, which raises questions about anonymization and patient consent that will have to be worked out as the company begins signing on participants. Venter and his colleagues also held out the possibility of other commercial products and properties emerging from the company's basic research.
That research is bound to span many projects, but the most thoroughly thought-out so far seems to be a collaboration with the Moores Cancer Center, as cancer studies are the most likely application of genomic research to deliver immediately actionable results. With Lippman, Venter announced that in the near future, every single patient who passes through the Moores Cancer Center will have her own genome, and that of her tumor, sequenced at Human Longevity on an opt-out basis. That data will be stored and used to find new therapeutic targets, pathways, and biomarkers.
Of course, even if none of the patients at Moores opt out of the program, their genomes will make only a small dent in the 40,000-genomes-a-year capacity of the company. Venter's scientific team is actively seeking out new cohorts for sequencing, especially in fields where microbiomics or metabolomics may be especially relevant. Early ideas include studies of supercentenarians, dementia, and autism—all, apparently, short-term goals. “Cancer is just the first of a multitude of diseases that we’ll be focusing on and sequencing this year,” said Venter. These ambitions will have to be fleshed out as the company builds its capacity (it has already put out a call for job applications) and seeks out new partners and clients.
With all its philosophical quirks—most prominently a rock-hard conviction that a whole host of emerging fields are at last ready to emerge all at once—Human Longevity is destined to become a central hub for genomic research, almost by brute force. With its pair of HiSeq X Ten batteries, the company will indeed be the record-holder for human genome sequencing, and the decision to mandate clinical records for every individual sequenced will give the data predictive power that is unprecedented at this scale, even before considering the microbiome and metabolome. It seems clear already that the data will have the “commercial value” Venter has promised.
One can only hope that clinical value won't be too far behind.