Human genome sequencing pioneer J. Craig Venter has jumped with both feet into biomedical sequencing with his latest venture, Human Longevity Inc., "a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company" that should be up and running by summer. Its ultimate goal: promote healthy aging.
Speaking at a telephone press conference today, the founder and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute headquartered in San Diego, California, announced that the new company has $70 million in startup funds to build the largest human genome sequencing center in the world. Its ability to read DNA will surpass even the sequencing powerhouse BGI in China, Venter says. The firm plans to acquire 20 of the new million-dollar sequencing machines from Illumina, which, when running at full capacity, should bring the cost of generating a human genome down to $1000. "Their new technology finally crosses the threshold that I've been waiting for in terms of quality, volume, and cost," says Venter, who points out that deciphering his genome in 2007 took $100 million and 9 months.
To date, beyond limited success tying certain tumor genetic profiles to prognosis and treatment, genome sequencing of individuals rarely provides a clear guide for doctors. But by pooling "everything we can measure" with clinical data, Venter hopes patterns will emerge that will be predictive of disease and of what treatments or preventive actions will be most beneficial. “Genomics is only a small part of the picture,” Venter stresses. Still, Human Longevity plans to sequence 40,000 genomes a year at first, with the goal of having a half-million or more within 5 years.
The company’s first focus will be cancer. The plan is to sequence the tumors of all patients coming to the cancer center at the University of California (UC), San Diego, as well as the DNA of seemingly healthy tissue samples—people will have to opt out of having their genomes done. Moreover, the firm will also catalog the diversity of the microbes living in each patient’s body and initially analyze their blood for some 2400 chemicals. In addition to examining about 7000 cancer patients, the company plans to study children, centenarians, other healthy adults, and people with various diseases, in part to find versions of genes that protect against those conditions.
Human Longevity will combine these data with clinical information on each person. Under an agreement with UC San Diego, physicians and researchers there would have access to the resulting database, but otherwise the company plans to license access to this resource to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, as well as to other academic organizations.
If marrying genomics with microbiomes and metabolomics wasn’t enough, Venter says the firm will also enter another hot field: stem cells. Human Longevity will assess genetic changes in stem cells as they differentiate and age, again with an eye toward discovering what is needed to slow aging and disease onset.
Some worry that Venter is tackling too much at once. The company’s plan “is all over the place,” says George Church of Harvard University, a genomicist and entrepreneur who has founded several companies himself. Other commercial ventures tend to be more focused. There’s at least one firm, for example, that looks just at microbiomes; others are investigating stem cells; and monitoring genomes for cancer is now being done at cancer centers and at private companies. Just making one of those efforts work entails “vast resources (and luck) to stay competitive,” Church points out, “and to do so in a multi-front battle would be even more remarkable.”
“The task of measuring and [building] omics data sets on this scale is considerable and effectively integrating them to describe the complexity is even greater,” agrees Jeremy Nicholson, a biological chemist at Imperial College London who heads the MRC-NIHR National Phenome Centre there, one of the world’s largest high-throughput metabolic phenotyping centers. “Biomedically, this could ultimately be a great scientific enterprise and adventure—but in reality is somewhat more analogous to scaling Mount Everest with a blindfold on!”
Venter has a reputation for thinking big and mobilizing the resources to carry out his plans. But his forays into the private sector have had mixed results. As president and chief scientific officer at Celera Genomics in Rockville, Maryland, he led that company in sequencing the first human genome, yet abruptly had to leave the company when it changed its priorities. Another firm he started, the San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics Inc., made headlines in 2009 when ExxonMobil cut a potentially $600 million deal with Venter to bring algal biofuels to market. But 4 years later, the partnership was scaled back and revamped to focus on more basic research. With Human Longevity, he has help: Stem cell entrepreneur Robert Hariri and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis join him as co-founders of the firm. Only time will tell what the longevity of their new venture will be.