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by Peter Moulding Published on 13th Nov 2015
by Peter Moulding Published on 13th November 2015
In 2000, following an international research effort, the human genome was mapped. In a world first, the Human Genome Project, alongside Celera Genomics, led by Craig Venter, read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for a human being. It was thought at the time that this revolutionary development would lead rapidly to a new understanding of health and medical care, through the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. In the fifteen years that have passed there have been many medical advancements following directly from that breakthrough. For example, where it once cost around 2.7 billion dollars to sequence the genome, it now costs less than five thousand. Doctors can now diagnose challenging disorders and diseases, with relative success, through DNA analysis. Further, they can now sequence a patient’s tumor to identify what treatment is best, and understand the genetic basis of thousands of conditions. However, these advancements, despite their importance, are not revolutionary. They are gallant notches on the medical timeline, but nothing compared to what was predicted of genome sequencing. The Human Genome Project has so far failed to deliver the upheaval in health care that was promised, but this can surely only mean that what has been achieved is only the tip of the iceberg. Craig Venter and those at Human Longevity Inc. definitely believe that there is still so much more to come. Human Longevity Inc. and personalised health careHuman Longevity Inc. was launched almost two years ago by Venter and aims to lead the way in bearing the torch of the Human Genome Project. On its website it states that, “HLI is going to change the way medicine is practiced by furthering the shift to a preventative, genomic-based medicine model.” It claims to be doing this through building the ‘world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes’, with further plans to sequence somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 human genomes per year. This, among other things, is the first time a company has offered wide access to genetic information on a commercial basis. HLI have partnered with major insurance companies worldwide, including Discovery Health which insures four million people in South Africa and the United Kingdom, to make genome services commonplace and low cost to the individual. This is a strategic two pronged attack by HLI, to create another source of income, and to tease out all the useful information in the human genome. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Venter explained how the completion of the sequencing of the human genome really was the first major step toward predictive medicine, “I’ve had my genome for 15 years, and there’s not much I can learn because there are not that many others to compare it to.” And this comparison is exactly what Venter’s new project, the Health Nucleus, aims to undertake. He wants to sequence everyone’s genome so that, before long, it could take seconds to compare any one genome with another. This, many believe, could be his greatest challenge yet, and at the core of the project will be “one of the greatest translation challenges in history.”The hype about the Health Nucleus and predictive analytics HLI claim that Health Nucleus will sequence a patient’s entire genome ‘with extraordinary resolution and accuracy’, then by scanning the body in fine detail, the compounds, microbes, fat deposits, shapes of vessels, and almost every other biological element will be measured and calculated. The data will then be simplified and streamlined into an easy to understand iPad app, and also sent to your physician. All of this is advertised in an equally streamlined and slick video with Venter at the center, explaining his concepts and ideas about the future of precision medicine. It is the next scientific enterprise of Human Longevity; aiming to lessen and soften the distinction between science and medical care, whilst at the same time of course making a huge profit. It is what this company seems to do best, hauling in great sums of investment in order to start its next big-budget adventure. Nonetheless, the Health Nucleus, according to Craig Venter is much more than just a “physical on steroids”, as he has called it in the past.It is at the core of Venter’s vision to turn everyone’s health into masses and masses of data, so that science can predict disease, and essentially outmaneuver it. The resulting database could be an incredibly powerful tool, and could lead to scientific revelations and healthcare revolutions. It would be the world’s largest, and would consist of such human genetic and medical information that it could allow for swathes of connections and predictions about this information and the development of disease. From these links, scientists and researchers are hoping to lead the way toward predictive medicine, so that they can use this information to avoid disease through treatments or a change in lifestyle.The challenges for HLIThe potential for this new venture is huge, and is the driving factor behind it. It most likely will turn out to be a good source of revenue for Human Longevity Inc, but behind the enterprise will always be the original motivation, an opportunity for scientific research. Nonetheless, this could result in a clash between HLI’s scientific research and the health systems which would need to be in place to administer any resultant treatments. HLI, for their venture to truly work, must blur scientific research and healthcare, with the provision of care something that the HLI is not so accomplished in. Further, after being asked about the potential of Health Nucleus, Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, said “I think there is absolutely no evidence that any of those tests have any benefit for healthy people”. She is not alone, as many other doctors are beginning to question the capacity of these tests, some claiming that it could lead to patients believing that this excessive testing will affect their health somehow. This kind of opposition is exactly what HLI do not need, but it does propose an interesting perspective. Despite all the initial comprehension of individual health, and the huge potential for the future of medicine, the Health Nucleus might not offer all that much at the moment.Making the science easy to understandWhat the Health Nucleus does, without any doubt, is simplify what would normally be extremely complicated science. For a patient it is a process of disentangling their health and having it as an entity they can access and reclaim, rather than a vague concept that is often being fought over in the mainstream media. For society too, what HLI are doing is important. They are defining the information generation, pushing science into the mainstream through christening phrases such as the ‘human genome’, ‘genetics’, and ‘the study of aging’.This process is a symbol of the company itself. Building on the progress made by the Human Genome Project; sequencing the genome which essentially unscrambled three billion base pairs of DNA, they now want to unscramble everybody’s DNA and organise it into As, Bs, and Cs. The company’s website offers just a little over one hundred words to explain their Human Genomics science, and the same for the science behind the database. Craig Venter, as the spokesperson for HLI, is famously proficient in making difficult science intelligible. Appearing on Ted Talks a number of times, as well as panel discussions and multiple TV programmes and news shows talking clearly and understandably; Venter represents a new breed of scientist. And HLI seem to represent a new breed of company in the field of aging science. In their Health Nucleus video they address the statistic that aging is the number ‘one risk factor for almost every disease’. From the name, Human Longevity, it's clear what obstacle they address, the ‘diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline.’ There are no secrets here and no qualms about whether they believe aging as an area, and a concept, is suitable for advancing science to focus on. With Health Nucleus, HLI are certainly taking bold steps towards doing so.