Craig Venter, who managed to make science both lucrative and glamorous with his pioneering approach to gene sequencing and synthetic biology, is taking on a new venture: aging.
He has joined forces with the founder of the X Prize and an expert in cell therapy to launch on Tuesday a new company called Human Longevity Inc. The man who once took off on his personal yacht to sample all the microscopic life in the seas plans to leverage some of the most fashionable new scientific approaches to figure out what makes us sick and old.
The San Diego-based company will tackle aging using gene sequencing; stem cell approaches; the collection of bacteria and other life forms that live in and on us called the microbiome; and the metabolome, which includes the byproducts of life called metabolites.
They’ll start out with what they are calling the largest human sequencing operation in the world.
“We are building a lab to a scale never attempted (before),” Venter told NBC News.
Venter first shot to fame when he raced with government scientists to finish the first map of all human DNA, called the human genome. Venter, himself a former government scientist, annoyed his former colleagues with a brash new approach to gene sequencing that was much faster but far less accurate, in their opinion.
“We are building a lab to a scale never attempted (before).”
The two teams joined forces, the partnership worked, and they finished their first draft in 2001.
Venter later parted ways with the company he founded to sequence genes and went on to tackle other challenges, including a venture that included weeks on his personal yacht sequencing the DNA of microbial life in the ocean.
He also took a crack at creating artificial life, making a synthetic bacterium of sorts, and making more controversy with that.
For the new company, Venter is teaming up Dr. Robert Hariri, who directs cell therapy operations at Celgene, a biopharmaceutical company, and engineer Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. Karen Nelson, who headed the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), will lead the microbiome team.
Studies — including projects at JCVI — have shown the bacteria, fungi and other creatures living in and on the human body affect diseases from cancer to eczema and dandruff. Hariri says their byproducts may also affect how well we age. “If you eliminate these various diseases, you eliminate the things contributing to unhealthy aging,” Hariri said.
"We believe the key to … make 100 the new 60, is something well within our grasp.”
Stem cells, the body’s master cells, secrete compounds that affect tissues and may be able to turn back the clock on some diseases associated with aging, he added.
It’s just a good time to tackle these kinds of projects, said Diamandis. The science is there, for one. “There is also this explosion of massive computational power,” said Diamandis, whose first X Prize challenge offered $10 million in 1996 to inspire commercial space ventures. (Burt Rutan won in 2004 with SpaceShipOne, a piloted rocket plane.)
“The time for creating extended high-performing humans genetically is now. We believe the key to … make 100 the new 60, is something well within our grasp.”
The new company doesn’t aim to extend human life so much as to help keep people healthy as they get older.
“The challenge is when you live into your 80s, 90s, to 100, living in a way that is decrepit and old is of zero value,” Diamandis said.
So, the goal is to battle all the diseases of aging, Venter said.
Is there a magic number? “I am hoping it is bigger than 68,” joked Venter, who is 67.
First published March 4 2014, 3:48 PM