Bob Hariri is a cofounder of Human Longevity, Inc., the present exemplar of the mainstream focus on genetics when it comes to aging and longevity. I've had my say as to why I think this sort of effort is likely only to incrementally improve the present state of medicine rather than actually deliver meaningful extension of healthy life. It is much the same argument as I've made for initiatives aimed at slowing aging through altering the operation of metabolism: that research is slow, expensive, the primary output is knowledge of the detailed operation of metabolism rather than useful therapies, and even if successful beyond the expectations of those involved, it will still result in treatments that are near useless for old people. What good does it do to slightly slow the pace at which damage accumulates in your tissues if you are already very old and damaged? What good does it do to change some of your epigenetic patterns to those of a longer-lived human, when the difference in outcome is only a few years of extra health, and probably not even that if you are already old?
The only way to effectively add decades to healthy life spans and help the old is to produce rejuvenation treatments. From where I stand, the only viable way forward, a path likely to produce useful results within a short enough span of time to matter for those in middle age today, is to repair the various forms of damage that cause aging. The catalog of fundamental differences between old tissues and young tissues is well known, and detailed proposals exist on how to build repair treatments for each of these types of damage. But that work is for the most part very poorly funded, excepting those portions relating to stem cells and cancer. Genetics on the other hand is the flavor of the decade and it is comparatively easy to raise funds for any work in that field, regardless of its relative merits in the bigger picture.
So genetics is what we get. On the one hand this is work that is necessary for the future of medicine as a whole and should indeed be accomplished, and the sooner the better. On the other hand there seems to be an ambition to move the needle on aging and longevity that is simply unrealistic given the tools to hand in this field. Adding decades to healthy human life spans within the next few decades is not a plausible outcome of genetic research over that time scale, but it is for the less acknowledged and far less well funded work on rejuvenation treatments carried out by groups like the SENS Research Foundation. If SENS-like repair research had the funding and attention of the genetics field, I'd feel a lot more confident about the timeline for future rejuvenation treatments.
So all that said - again - what are the founders of Human Longevity, Inc. going to do with the vast mountain of genetic data they plan to accumulate? How do they tie the data gathering to their vision of improving human longevity and intervening in the aging process? Below are some interesting snippets from a recent interview with cofounder Bob Hariri, and as you can see there is a lot of emphasis placed on stem cell therapies as the treatment mode:
RS: How did you get together with Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis?
BH: The three of us realized that we shared many common passions, among which was a desire to impact human health and society by exploring aging as a targetable disease. All of us have ventured, failed and succeeded by seeking to answer scientific questions based in real-world experience and offering solutions. We all took paths that were challenged, in some cases ridiculed and rejected, by established scientific institutions. In part that's because invention without relevance or context has less impact than true innovation. We all saw aging as an opportunity to innovate, not as an obstacle to human progress and prosperity.
RS: Can stem cells prevent aging and even turn back the clock?
BH: We believe that stem cells that are functioning well can play an important role in extending health and improving physical and cognitive performance and cosmetic vitality. Our work in stem cells has shown that if you can identify and measure individual variation for specific markers of disease at particular ages, you can identify the factors that predict the variability in how cells change over the lifespan. Then, using the information derived by interrogation of the genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, we can tailor treatments to how individuals get sick and improve their health.
RS: What is the game plan for the years ahead?
BH: Our goal is to sequence over 1 million full human genomes, microbiomes, MRI body-image scans, metabolomes, etc. We will commercialize therapies for diseases that are associated with the biological and molecular breakdown associated with aging. And we will develop a preventive healthcare model that will take baseline measures of stem-cell function, monitor that in real time and correct any drift from optimal activity with stem-cell therapy.
RS: How do you feel about Google's Calico venture? Are they competition for you?
BH: We are thrilled and excited that a remarkable company like Google has invested so actively in biomedicine and see Calico as part of what will be a rapidly expanding enterprise of age management or wellness. I hope there are many more companies who participate in helping people live longer, healthier lives.
RS: What do you think the field looks like 20 years from now?
BH: I believe stem-cell innovations will have a quantum impact on the kind of people we can be. Throughout our short history on this planet, our progress can be measured by our ability to thrive. By this, I don't just mean the fact that we will live longer and live better or that, as a result, we will spend less on health care. Rather, I believe the technological and physical evolution of our species will increase the capacity to share, and to be more flexible, inventive and determined in the face of uncertainty. Living longer at a time when the supply of ideas and inventions increase more quickly will exponentially increase the opportunity to pursue many more possibilities.