Venter, 67, has teamed up with stem cell pioneer Dr. Robert Hariri
and X Prize Foundation founder Dr. Peter Diamandis to form Human
Longevity Inc, a company that will use both genomics and stem cell
therapies to find treatments that allow aging adults to stay healthy
and functional for as long as possible.
"We're creating the largest data set of its kind, ever," Venter said
in an interview in his offices at the J. Craig Venter Institute in
La Jolla, California, where he and his co-founders gathered after
announcing the new venture on Tuesday.
Venter said the hope is to make new discoveries that promote
longevity and help prevent diseases that accompany aging.
The startup company has $70 million in private backing and has
already purchased two ultrafast HiSeq X Ten gene sequencing systems
from Illumina Inc, a leading manufacturer of DNA sequencing
machines, with the option to buy three more.
The company will use that technology to map 40,000 human genomes a
year in a push to build the world's largest database of human
genetic variation. The database will include sequences from the very
young through the very old, both diseased and healthy.
Dr. Eric Topol, Scripps Health chief academic officer and director
of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, called the venture
"a big, audacious initiative and just the kind we need to make
substantive progress in the field."
Venter's push into longevity follows the formation in September of
biotechnology company Calico, which is backed by Google Inc.
"Undoubtedly, important biologic discoveries will be made along the
way, but it remains unclear whether such efforts like Human
Longevity Inc and Calico can influence longevity," Topol said.
Diamandis, a serial entrepreneur and the company's vice chairman,
acknowledged that the quest for longevity has been taken up by many,
going as far back as 1513 with Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's
search for the fountain of youth.
What makes the timing of the new venture compelling, he said, is
that it comes in a period of "rapid, exponential growth" for a host
of new technologies. He cited dramatic declines in the cost of
genome sequencing, explosive growth in bandwidth, and the advent of
cloud computing and machine learning technologies, all of which will
be needed to make use of the vast amounts of data the group intends
In addition to gathering whole genome sequences, the company will
gather genetic data on the trillions of microbes — including
bacteria, viruses and fungi — living in and on humans.
By better understanding the microbiomes in the gut, in the mouth, on
the skin and other sites on the body, the company said it hopes to
develop better probiotics as well as better diagnostics and drugs to
improve health and wellness.
Along with the microbiome data, Human Longevity Inc or HLI will
collect data on the metabolome — the various metabolites,
biochemicals and fats in the body — in order to get a better picture
of the circulating chemicals that contribute to health and affect
how drugs work.
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The company's initial treatment targets will be some of the toughest
age-related diseases: cancer, diabetes and obesity, heart and liver
diseases, and dementia.
Venter said the company will start first with cancer. It has teamed
up with the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California,
San Diego, with the goal of sequencing the genomes of everyone who
comes there for treatment, currently about 4,000 to 5,000 patients a
year, as well as doing a full genome sequence on their tumors.
"Cancer is one of the most actionable areas right now with
genomic-based therapies," Venter said, adding that cancer is just
the starting point.
"We're not just focusing on disease," he said. Rather, he sees the
database has a means of getting concrete answers to the question of
nature versus nurture.
"From your genome, we will know everything about who your ancestors
were genetically, what you got from them, your type of memory, your
type of fundamental metabolism, even whether you are an optimist or
a pessimist," he said.
"A lot of these things are genetic traits that aren't just nice
things to know. They are also predictive of medical outcomes."
But the venture is not just a science experiment. Venter envisions
the database the company builds will be attractive to a host of
potential clients, ranging from researchers and drug companies to
Although he declined to name any potential drug company partners,
Venter said already there have been "lots of interested parties
talking to us."
In addition to UCSD, the company has established strategic
collaborations with privately held Metabolon Inc of North Carolina,
a company that focuses on biochemical profiling, as well as his own
J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit genomics research institute.
Venter said the first round of funding should last about 18 months.
Initial backers include K.T. Lim, chief executive of Malaysian
multinational Genting Corp, and Illumina.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa
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