The Fountain of Age: Genome research unlocks the secrets of longer life

April 30, 2015

For the first 5,000 years of human existence, the notion of a Fountain of Youth was mere myth. Average life expectancy during the Roman Empire was about 26 years; by the 1800s it had increased only to about 28 years. But in the past two centuries, scientific advances have tripled that number, and developments in sequencing the human genome herald even greater gains in even less time. At the 2015 Milken Global Conference, J. Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis, co-founders of Human Longevity Inc., discussed those coming changes and their implications for how we will live in the future.

Venter began the conversation by looking back 15 years, to when he first sequenced his own human genome. The most surprising part of his discovery, he said, was that humans have no more than 20,000 or so genes. He said some scientists had hoped there would be more than 300,000, so they might correlate with all the types of human traits.

“We all differ by 3 percent from each other,” Venter said.     

Venter’s original effort cost $100 million and required a computer the size of large hotel ballroom. Today, a single PC could perform those calculations. But to generate enough data for comparisons that could lead to truly groundbreaking treatments for diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s, Venter said he’ll need to sequence a million genomes. That will require a petabyte of data—more than current computational infrastructure allows—but Venter said he’s confident computational speed will keep increasing fast enough to allow him to reach his goal by 2020.

The cost of genome sequencing has also shrunk, from $100 million to about $1,500, and Diamandis said he hoped it would be closer to $300 in five years. Ultimately, when scientists are able to mine genomic data on a mass scale, they will be able to find individually tailored health-care solutions for everyone. Scientists can already prevent Alzheimer’s disease in rodents by changing a single gene; they hope to test humans for the disease 20 years before they show any symptoms, preventing it from following its devastating course.

This kind of research has already produced dramatic results in the pharmaceutical industry, which is using genetic data to pinpoint which drugs work most effectively on which patients. He told a story about a Pfizer drug that was initially rejected as ineffective in treating lung cancer tumors. But for patients who had a gene mutation known as an ALK-translocation, the drug was more than 60 percent effective at knocking down tumors. Now, the only patients who receive the drug are the four percent of the population that have this genetic defect.

That has amazing implications for drug trials, Diamandis said. “If you use a genetic determination of populations that do and don’t respond to a drug, you can get a clinical trial approved with 100 patients in a short amount of time, rather than having a statistician determine if it works.”

With longer life spans, however, come questions about social contracts that were written during an age when life expectancy was 50, or younger. “Is ‘til death do you part different if you live until 125?” Diamandis asked. Will four years of college be enough to educate you for 100 years? When should people be able to start collecting Social Security? Will the planet be able to sustain so many people who never die?

“People ask me if I want to live forever,” Venter joked. “I usually say by the 10,000th wife, it might get boring.”