Craig Venter

Craig J. Venter (Credit: JVC)

Craig Venter hit the headlines back in 2000 when he became the first geneticist to map the human genome. Now, he has returned with a new challenge, and that’s decoding death. 

According to CNBC, Venter believes he can uncover the deadly diseases lurking within individuals who are noticeably healthy. “We do a full genome on everyone. Compare that to what is found in the clinic and we find more data,” explained Venter, executive chairman and head of scientific strategy at Human Longevity. He described the company as a “good detective…making discoveries, not diagnoses.”

So far, the company has discovered serious detections in approximately 40% of patients, with many of the discoveries being located much earlier than they would have been found previously via traditional testing. They are even finding cancerous tumours that are in phase 0 and 1 in patients who are experiencing no pain, whereas most people are often diagnosed in phase 4, where the pain is prevalent and the disease is more difficult to beat. 

“Thus far, for the first few thousands, we only saw people who considered themselves fully healthy,” Venter continued. “They feel good, they look good, but we’re finding detections [in them].”

If you were to go through the complete Health Nucleus program, you would take part in an all-encompassing MRI test and bone density scans among other comprehensive lab work in addition to a full genome – can expect 300 to 400 of data about their health. 

The company’s latest HNX Platinum membership costs an initial $25,000 but covers three years of testing. Once the three years is up, a membership will cost you $6000 each year, for additional testing. Whereas the NHX membership, which includes whole genome sequencing and the full body MRI, has a price of $4,950 for the first year and $2,950 for each year thereafter. 

The company has achieved some monumental successes, detecting cancer in 5% of people over the age of 50 who didn’t know they had it. In addition, 1% of all people screened had an undetected aneurysm, with a majority of those donations found in people under 50. 

“Right now 40% of males that reach age 50 won’t make it to 74. 28% of women who reach 50 won’t make it to that age. Longevity is changing those odds,” Venter added. 

However, despite Venter’s claims, some doctors oppose the approach, citing the potential for false negatives and the unnecessary array of tests on “healthy people.”

Nevertheless, Venter has expressed that we should be more mindful about how we use the word,”healthy.” The testing, which is designed for patients in the 18-99 age range, can be used to detect diseases that a person will get later in life. It is able to detect pre-diabetes in people who are predisposed to getting the disease, and those individuals can start to make the lifestyle changes necessary to prevent a diagnosis. 

For example, sequencing in one 18-year-old patient found several oncogenes, and her and her family will continue to work with Human Longevity to monitor the cells.”When she develops cancer, we’ll be ready,” Venter noted. 

Even if a patient undergoes testing and no detections are found, they still receive positive mental benefits. “Maybe someone feels fully healthy but have a parent that died from a certain disease, like Alzheimer’s. They feel better that they have a perfectly healthy brain, …People worry all the time,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with a new paradigm. People having more control of their lives instead of waiting to see what they die from.”

In order to carry out the tests, Human Longevity uses an algorithm to analyse a brain MRI. Venter added, “We quantify it…looking into regions of the brain to make much more accurate predictions if you will develop Alzheimer’s and the likelihood of phases as you age. We see the exact region in the brain.”

It is important to remember that age remains the greatest factor in developing Alzheimer’s, with Venter seeing a strong correlation between exercise and dementia. “The most important thing is the cardiovascular system. Decreased blood flow to the brain [increases risks],” he commented. “If you take various preventive measures, risk goes down.”

Looking ahead, Venter expressed his frustration at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who he feels hasn’t found a way to serve the public in regard to genome data regulation. It barred 23andMe from offering genetic-risk assessments in 2013 before later reinstating the right to offer limited genetic reports. More recently, the FDA approved a few breast cancer gene assessments offered by 23andMe in March. 

“FDA doesn’t do a good job in how they regulate. It does not serve the public nor the government since the data is not at a stage where it’s accurate,” said Venter. “They have honorable intentions of regulation, but the genome has 6.4 billion genetic letters. Approving one or two at a time, it’s absurd… [it] may take an outside group. We’re compiling all this data, but it’s still early stages.”

He concluded that living to 130 is “a science-fiction fantasy,” but scientists don’t know the upper limit on age, and the earlier that scientists can detect genetic risks and couple that with a healthy lifestyle, the better the chances for a longer life. 

“Only a small fraction of people live into their 90s. We hope to get people in the 90 to 100 range,” he added. “I’m hoping to make it into triple digits. Doing as much as I can preventive-wise.”