Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) is a young company with a lot of funding that will be using genetics to produce a platform for personalized medicine and investigation of disease mechanisms, with a focus on age-related disease. Unfortunately, as I've noted in the past, this sort of use of genetics in the present research mainstream, which is to say the entirely correct scientific impetus towards building a comprehensive and complete map of human molecular biochemistry, is not the road towards effective extension of human life spans. Some of the Human Longevity principals have in the past talked a good game when it comes to the desire to meaningful extend human life span, but that simply isn't an outcome that is possible or plausible given what they are doing. What is plausible and possible is incremental progress in the expensive and futile approach of patching over age-related disease without addressing root causes, better diagnostics, and a great deal of new information about the details of the overlap of metabolism, genetics, and aging - how and why natural variations in longevity exist.
Understanding natural variations in longevity doesn't give researchers the ability to create radical life extension, people living to 150 and beyond in excellent health. Neither would even perfect diagnostic ability, a complete and transparent view of what is going on in our biochemistry. The only way to control, prevent, and reverse aging to fix the causes of aging, the molecular damage that accumulates to cause dysfunction, damage, and disease. The research community knows how to do this, and classes of potential therapies are outlined in great detail in the SENS research programs and elsewhere. For entirely cultural reasons, however, work on such rejuvenation treatments is a minority field and little funded. We can hope that as it produces results, as is the case for the senescent cell clearance component of SENS at the moment, and as the mainstream approach of tinkering and understanding metabolism continues to fail to produce results, SENS will take over the mainstream. It is a slow and frustrating process, however.
Now that a large funding round for Human Longevity Inc. has been completed, we are seeing more articles on their technology; VCs and founders tend to like to talk up their positions. This is one of the more informative pieces:
So far, HLI has amassed the sequences of around 20,000 whole genomes, says Craig Venter. But, of course, he wants even more. The company has room for more sequencing facilities on its third floor and is considering a second center in Singapore, planning to rapidly scale to sequencing the genomes of 100,000 people per year - whether children, adults or centenarians, and including both those with disease and those who are healthy. By 2020, Venter aims to have sequenced a million genomes. Despite the scale of its ambitions, HLI would be just another company offering DNA sequencing and testing if it were not for the fact that Venter is systematically linking DNA information to a diverse range of other medical data about each patient, gathered in what he calls a Health Nucleus. With this, Venter wants to move from basic genetics to impacting individual lives "very directly," he says. "The most important part of that is nothing to do with the genome directly, but measuring phenotype and physiology and understanding their medical risk. That is what the Health Nucleus is all about."
The Health Nucleus adds yet more data using non-invasive tests. My tour begins with the room where HLI conducts a total body scan to create the avatars that inhabit its app. We pass through a succession of white rooms. There's one where magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are shown, revealing visceral fat (which is linked to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease), muscle volume, grey matter, white matter and more. Venter is happy for his "age-related atrophy" report to be displayed here on a screen, given the good news about how young his brain looks.
So far, Venter and a handful of patients have passed through the Nucleus. Targeted initially at self-insured executives and athletes, a full health scan will be priced at $25,000. "We will be developing the evidence around this to make the case for preventive medicine." Criticisms of such extensive screening stem from the conservative nature of the medical community, notably when it comes to keeping the costs of screening under control. "That is the medical establishment saying: we want to keep doing what we do, we want to see people after they develop symptoms and have something wrong with them. The human longevity approach is the exact opposite."
Ray Kurzweil is one of HLI's advisors. Does Venter buy into his visions for radical life extension? No. Kurzweil's view is interesting but does not change a thing Venter does on a daily basis. Though Venter wants to see the kind of step change in health last witnessed between 1910 and 2010, when improvements in medicine and sanitation increased the average lifespan from around 50 to 75 years, life extension is not the primary objective, he stresses. As his 70th birthday approaches, Venter is only too aware of his own mortality. While his mother, aged 92, is "still pretty bright" despite a stroke, his father only lived to 59 as a result of sudden cardiac death. "I am now ten years beyond that," he says with a chuckle of satisfaction. But if you really want immortality, he adds, "do something meaningful with your life".