Imagine taking a simple, low-cost test that could predict with 100 percent accuracy whether, absent preventative measures, you will contract one or another type of cancer by a certain age. That would indeed be a powerful test, one that could transform medicine, quality of life and those with a financial interest in health outcomes. Not least among them: life insurers.
An ability to accurately predict the onset of disease — and ultimately to extend and enhance healthy lifespans — is also a primary objective of Dr. Craig Venter and his team at Human Longevity Inc. Founded in 2013, the San Diego-based firm is creating a comprehensive database of whole genome, phenotype and clinical data using large-scale computing and machine-learning.
Following his main stage presentation at the AALU 2016 annual meeting, held May 1-3 in Washington, D.C., Dr. Venter met with LifeHealthPro Senior Editor Warren S. Hersch. The Q&A exclusive explored HLI’s advances in genomics research, and what discoveries resulting from gene sequencing may portend for human health and society. The following are excerpts.
Hersch: When you got into this space, did you anticipate the discoveries you’ve made to date? Were any findings unexpected or surprising?
Venter: Back in 2001, I would have suggested you get your genome sequenced once — maybe at birth — and perhaps again if you get cancer or another life-threatening disease. I never predicted that we would be able to tell your age very precisely just by looking at your genetic code. That means genetic code changes over time, and that the changes are quantifiable. This discovery was the single biggest surprise for us.
Hersch: To what extent have advances in genomics research at HLI rested on gains in information technology?
Venter: In 1999, we paid $50 million for the third largest computer in the world — a machine operating at the speed of teraflop, or a trillion floating point operations per second. Today, you can buy a teraflop card for your PC for a few hundred dollars.
As computing power has increased, the time and cost and of DNA sequencing has declined dramatically. We’re still pushing the very limits of computing. People never thought genomics would evolve to become a big data problem; they never did the math on it.
HLI is among the top one percent of Amazon cloud users, right up there with big providers of video streaming services. If computing technology were 5 years behind where it is now, we would not be able to do this work.
Hersch: How large is the genomics field now? Do you compete with other players in certain domains?
Venter: Today, the competition is about getting the right solutions and the right quality of data. There are a lot of gene-sequencing machines, but not a lot of data has accumulated in public databases.
One reason for this is the need to protect people’s anonymity. Today we can accurately predict someone’s face using fingerprints he or she leaves on a water bottle. You can’t de-identify this data — prevent a person’s identify from being connected with the genetic information — if that material is held in a public database that can’t guarantee anonymity.
Our HLI database is highly secure. That allows us to protect people’s identities and the results of tests we run on them. Genomics information needs to be kept confidential; this is a very important aspect of the research today.
Hersch: Regarding the public sphere, do you believe that greater involvement by the government is needed, either in respect to genomics research or in addressing privacy and ethical issues?
Venter: I think it’s critical that the government be involved in some aspects of the research. Privacy guidelines, for example, need to be developed for using genomics data in different spheres.
Hersch: I imagine this need is increasing in tandem with the accuracy with which genetic testing can forecast health outcomes … Yes?
Venter: The accuracy levels are getting extremely interesting. We have some hints that we can predict when you’re likely to die — information you may not want to share with many others. Accuracy in such predictions will be key to being able to plan your life appropriately.