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Mar 4, 2014

UPDATE—Venter's New Goal: World's Largest Sequencing Operation

UPDATE—Venter's New Goal: World's Largest Sequencing Operation

Dr. Venter is founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute. [Industrial Biotechnology]

  • J. Craig Venter, Ph.D. and two co-founders today launched a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company that he vowed will assemble the world’s largest human gene sequencing operation, using $70 million in Series A financing.

    Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) said it will compile the most comprehensive and complete human genotype, microbiome, and phenotype database—with plans to sequence up to 40,000 human genomes per year, then quickly scale up to 100,000 human genomes per year.

    “We’re building the largest human genome sequencing center in the world,” Dr. Venter said this morning on a conference call. “We view this as just the beginning, the starting point of this new field that some of us have been waiting for, for a very long time.”

    Answering a GEN question, Dr. Venter said HLI will initially focus its clinical sequencing efforts on cancer, but won’t stop there or even focus on that family of diseases.

    “Cancer will be a significant portion of what we do, but it will be a minority of all the sequencing that’s done,” Dr. Venter said. “We’ll be dealing with individuals with dementia, with autism, and hopefully a huge cohort of people that have lived a long time without disease. We will be looking broadly across the disease spectrum.”

    The company said it will look to identify therapeutic solutions for cancer as well as other aging-related diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.

    Dr. Venter said HLI believes its $70 million in financing will support company operations through its first 18 months. The financing comes from investors he termed “mostly very high net-worth individuals,” with the lead investor being Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chairman, president and CEO of the Genting Group in Malaysia. Lim is also lead investor and a board member of Synthetic Genomics, the commercializer of genomic-driven technologies of which Dr. Venter is co-founder, chairman, CEO, and co-scientific director.

    HLI said it will sequence a variety of people, both healthy and ill, from children to centenarians.

    The genomes of centenarians may come from participants in last year’s Archon Genomics XPRIZE, in which the nonprofit X PRIZE Foundation announced—then last year canceled—a $10 million award for the first investigator team that most rapidly, accurately, and economically sequenced 100 whole human genomes from centenarians, after concluding that genome sequencing technology was plummeting in cost and increasing in speed outside of the competition. Dr. Venter was prize chair of the Archon Genomics XPRIZE.

    The foundation’s chairman and CEO, Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., has joined Dr. Venter as a co-founder and vice chairman of HLI, along with stem cell therapeutics pioneer Robert Hariri, M.D., Ph.D. 

    “We’re discussing with various groups that have collected groups of [genomes], but we think we’ll be looking at some novel sources as well. All that’s under discussion,” said Dr. Diamandis, who is also co-founder & chairman of the Singularity University.

    Both the sequencing operations and the new company’s efforts to help develop cell-based therapeutics are aimed at addressing aging-related diseases.

    The new company anticipates hiring “over 100 new people” within the first year, Dr. Venter said. HLI has two laboratories of about 40,000 square feet each, and will be building out another roughly 60,000 square feet of new long-term laboratories in San Diego’s University Towne Centre area that it expects to begin occupying in about a year.

    HLI has already purchased two Illumina HiSeq X 10 sequencing systems—each instrument is sold in a set of 10 for $10 million—with the option to acquire three additional systems.

    “We are very excited to be supporting Human Longevity. Previously announced customers for the HiSeq X Ten platform have been established genome centers with a substantial history of sequencing operations,” Alex Dickinson, svp, strategic initiatives, at Illumina, told GEN.

    “This announcement is ground-breaking in two ways: HLI is the world’s first startup enabled by this technology, and the world’s first acquirer of two X Ten’s in a single purchase,” Dickinson said. “It’s also fortuitous that HLI is located within a few blocks of Illumina in San Diego, so we look forward to working closely with the HLI team to apply the skills Illumina has developed in our own sequencing services to support HLI on the path to production as soon as possible.”

    HLI says it will generate revenue by licensing its database to pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and academic organizations, as well as through its sequencing activity and by partnering to develop advanced diagnostics and therapeutics.

    “This is a very expensive undertaking. The only way to do that is to make it so the data is so meaningful that it has commercial value,” Dr. Venter said. “If it doesn’t, then this will be a very short-lived phenomenon.”

    Asked whether patients will be told HLI will sell and use their data, Dr. Venter replied: “They will be told that the data is part of the HLI database, and they’re getting their genome and their information in exchange for that.

    “We think that’s a fair exchange,” he said, adding that specific terms are being worked out.

    In addition to heading Synthetic Genomics, Dr. Venter is founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). HLI said it is establishing a collaboration and research services agreement with JCVI covering proteomics, infectious disease diagnostics, and the human microbiome, with the new company agreeing to license intellectual property from the institute.

    JCVI is one of three partners with which HLI has established strategic collaborations; the others are Metabolon and University of California, San Diego.

    Metabolon has agreed with HLI to characterize some 2,400 chemicals in the bloodstream of 10,000 of the initial patients, with the goal of adding chemical data with the microbiome, human genome, and human phenotype data.

    “This will be one of the largest data studies in the history of science and medicine. Hopefully we’re within five to 10 years of having a half-million to one million human genomes, the associated clinical data, phenotype data, outcome data associated with that, and we will be using that, hopefully, to make numerous new discoveries,” Dr. Venter said.

    HLI and UC San Diego have agreed to develop protocols and procedures to enable whole-genome, microbiome, and tumor sequencing and analysis of consenting UC San Diego research patients.

    Collaboration has begun by the company with UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center—one of numerous such programs HLI hopes to launch with clinical centers worldwide. Moores Cancer Center will account for about 5,000 to 10,000 of the initial 40,000 genomes HLI plans to sequence annually, Dr. Venter said.

    Scott Lippman, M.D., director of the Moores Cancer Center, said the collaboration with his center will focus on offering full genomic sequencing on the tumors and germline of every patient—not just targeted sequencing of the couple of hundred known cancer genes, but the full genome of some 20,000 genes.

    “The use of targeted sequencing now tends to focus on areas where there have already been shown to be some actual mutations, like lung (cancer) and melanoma. We’ll be doing those, looking for new mutations, translocations, targetable or actionable events, but also other diseases like prostate cancer, where there are no actual mutations, to discover ones to help treat those patients,” added Dr. Lippman, an advisor to HLI and UCSD’s senior associate dean and associate vice chancellor of cancer research and care.



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