Wednesday morning of the 2017 BIO International Convention commenced the Personalized Medicine & Diagnostics Track with an informative session titled, “Genomics and the Future of Personalized Medicine”.
The session featured Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman and Executive Officer of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit, research organization with approximately 250 scientists and staff dedicated to human, microbial, plant, synthetic and environmental genomic research, and the exploration of social and ethical issues in genomics. Dr. Venter is co-founder, executive chairman and co-chief scientist of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI), a privately held company focused on developing products and solutions using synthetic genomics technologies. Dr. Venter is also the Co-Founder, Executive Chairman and Head of Scientific Strategy for Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI), a San Diego-based genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company focused on extending the healthy, high performance of the human lifespan.
Standing in San Diego—the so-called ‘genomics capital of the world’—Venter’s remarks outlined a visionary plan for 21st century medicine. As a pioneer in the field of genomics, he has been at the forefront of the technological push toward reforming a healthcare system to adopt the ethos of personalized medicine—that the right drug be given to the right patient at the right time. In this vein, he led the effort for the first sequencing of the human genome about fifteen years ago. Venter has asserted that healthcare must enter a new era of proactive, predictive, preventive and personalized care, saying that, “Most of medicine is trying to guess what’s going on while we look and see directly what is going on.”
One of Venter’s newest pillars of his overarching vision is Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI), which was founded about three and half years ago. The raison d’etre of HLI is to use predictive technologies and data analytics to identify and arrest health problems earlier in a person’s life to enable them to live longer, healthier lives. As HLI collects more data, they are learning that traditional healthcare structures are built on shaky foundations. For instance, HLI’s datasets show that cell lines in mice are not good guinea pigs for human health studies despite the fact that mice are currently utilized in early scientific research in the development of pharmaceutical drugs. HLI also has a comprehensive cancer program to identify biomarkers to predictively identify tumors before patients become symptomatic. This new approach has the potential to truly transform the treatment of rare diseases.
Dr. Venter provided an overview of one of HLI’s ventures, the Health Nucleus (HNX), which aims to provide whole genome sequencing and other diagnostic services directly to physicians and patients. Individuals who visit a HNX clinic will receive a battery of medical tests, which measure every data point imaginable—from height and weight to the individual microbiome and a genomic profile. HNX has advanced existing technologies, such as modifying the MRI to scan head to foot, showing the entire vascular tree, which will more easily reveal health issues such as aneurysms. He also noted that over time and with more data collected, the diagnostics become more effective from machine learning.
The HNX datasets are also challenging some long-held medical standards such as the medical recommendations for colonoscopies—HNX found that three women had early signs of colon cancer in their thirties, yet the medical standard advises regular colonoscopy tests beginning at age 50. The testing arguably saved their lives. With this evidence, it is hard to argue with Venter’s vision, and it provides a compelling case to reevaluate medical standards using the new medical knowledge gained from these genomic technologies. Another persuasive example is that the HNX testing was conducted on a group of people with no perceived health problems only to discover after testing that roughly 40% of these individuals needed some sort of treatment for a health issue that had not yet been diagnosed.
Venter’s projects represent an evolutionary step in diagnostics to focus on the critically important early detection—and more accurate detection—of diseases. He has made the core tenants of personalized medicine practical and his vision has already shown evidence of success. The practical application of personalized medicine and genomic technologies is also an evolutionary step in patient empowerment as Venter succinctly said, “We’re empowering people to save their own lives”.