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Updated: March 17, 2014 12:30 IST

In pursuit of a long life

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Craig Venter
Wikimedia Commons Craig Venter

Craig Venter hopes to cheat aging and death by resorting to his first love: sequencing genomes

What’s the plan?

Venter announced in March that he was starting a new company, Human Longevity, which will focus on figuring out how people can live longer and healthier lives.

To do that, the company will build what Venter says will be the largest human DNA sequencing operation in the world, capable of processing 40,000 human genomes a year.

The huge amount of DNA data will be combined with other data on the health and body composition of the people whose DNA is sequenced, in hopes of gleaning insights into the molecular causes of aging and age-related illnesses like cancer and heart disease.

Why target aging?

Slowing aging, if it can be done, could be a way to prevent many diseases, an alternative to treating one disease a time.

“Your age is your Number 1 risk factor for almost every disease, but it’s not a disease itself,” Venter said in an interview. Still, his company will also work on treating individual diseases of aging as well.

Who is Craig Venter?

Venter is known most for having run a privately funded effort to sequence the first human genome, racing to a tie against the publicly funded Human Genome Project in 2000.

More recently, Venter has laid claim to creating what some have called the first synthetic cell.

Is this a first?

No. Last year, Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, announced that his company was creating an anti-aging company, Calico. Oracle’s chief executive, Larry Ellison, has financed anti-aging research through his foundation.

What are the reactions?

Co-founder Dr. Peter H. Diamandis said the goal was not to make people live forever but rather to make 100 years old the next 60.

Some outside scientists praised the effort.

“I feel strongly that is a wonderful scientific thing to do,” said Dr. Thomas Perls, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine who has been studying the genetics of centenarians. :”He’s looking at throwing a lot of money at this to do a lot of science quickly.”

Dr. Eric J. Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, said that while the new company might well expand knowledge, translating that to meaningful drug therapies is likely a long ways off.

He added, “We have no way of knowing whether longevity will be favourably influenced.”

What are the challenges?

Venter said his company hoped to increase its capacity to 100,000 genomes a year. But even at $1,000 per genome, that would mean the company would be spending $100 million a year just on sequencing, not counting all the other studies it wants to do.

Obtaining the genomes to sample could also take time. Human Longevity said it would collaborate with the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego and offer to sequence the DNA of the tumours of all patients, as well as the DNA from healthy cells. At first, patients would not be charged for this; eventually, the company hopes to sell such a service.

— New York Times News Service

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