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J. Craig Venter, who helped lead the race to sequence the human genome, or genetic blueprint, is now launching a venture to combine information about genes and other medical data to solve diseases of aging. / Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Getty Images

J. Craig Venter, one of the pioneers of human genetic research, announced Tuesday that he is turning his attention to aging.

Venter, along with several others, co-founded a San Diego-based company called Human Longevity Inc. to combine genetic, medical and other data at a gigantic scale. The aim, he said, is to come up with new ways to predict, prevent and treat diseases of aging, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.

Human Longevity Inc. has already raised $70 million from donors, including a company owned by Malaysian billionaire KT Lim, Venter said on a conference call Tuesday.

Google entered a similar business space last September when it launched California Life Co., or Calico, to study the genetic causes of aging and address related diseases.

Venter is a scientist and entrepreneur who helped lead the race 15 years ago to sequence the human genome, the genetic blueprint of humanity. The first genome sequenced was his own, at a cost of $100 million, and the process took 9 months.

Now, the cost per genome is down to around $1,000, and Venter predicts his new company will be able to sequence 40,000 per year.

The genetic information is not enough on its own, he said, but will be combined with each person's medical record as well as data on the chemicals in their bloodstream and the microbes that inhabit their body. Having all this would allow scientists to better understand how genes, chemicals and organisms interact to cause or prevent disease.

The sheer volume of this data will have "a huge impact on changing the cost of medicine," Venter promises, by helping people understand their disease risk when they still have time to do something about it, and by giving people medications that match their genetic profile and are therefore more likely to be effective.

The patients whose data is part of the research will provide access to that information in exchange for their results, Venter said.

George Church, a Harvard University geneticist who has also been at the leading edge of genetic innovation, said other companies are doing pieces of what Venter promises - but that combining them all won't be easy.

"Any one of these would entail vast resources (and luck) to stay competitive - and to do so in a multi-front battle would be even more remarkable," Church said via e-mail. Much of this work is still at an academic level and will therefore be hard to turn into a commercial enterprise, he added.

Human Longevity Inc. will make money by licensing its database to drug companies, academics and biotechs, and by developing its own diagnostics and therapeutics based on stem cells.

Stem cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body and have long held out the promise - as yet unrealized - of treating disease by replacing malfunctioning cells with young, healthy ones.

"We see this as an important opportunity to validate the use of (stem) cell therapy as a means of addressing the changes that occur in aging," said Robert Hariri, a company co-founder, who was also on the conference call. "As we identify the types of defects that occur, we'll be better equipped to design therapeutic tools to serve those defects."

The company is collaborating with Metabolon, a North Carolina-based diagnostic company; as well as with the University of California-San Diego, which will provide access to patients, starting with those in its Moores Cancer Center.

Eric Lander, who heads the Broad Institute, a genetics research center in Cambridge, Mass., said that large-scale sequencing, such as Venter envisions, "is a great thing for medical progress."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: J. Craig Venter launches new project on aging

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