Craig Venter's Latest Startup Gets $70 Million to Sequence Loads of Genomes

Craig Venter's Latest Startup Gets $70 Million to Sequence Loads of Genomes

J. Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer, today unveiled a new San Diego-based venture with an ambitious goal of providing whole genome sequencing and cell-therapy-based diagnostic services for patients.

Venter said he co-founded the company, Human Longevity, or HLI, with Robert Hariri, who oversaw Celgene Cellular Therapeutics and Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation. The company already has raised $70 million in Series A venture financing that includes a Malaysian investment fund that also is the lead investor of another Venter venture, Synthetic Genomics, San Diego-based Illumina, and other individual investors.

Venter plans to serve as the chairman and CEO of both HLI and San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics, which he co-founded in 2005 to engineer genes within organisms so they can produce fuel, chemicals, medicines, and nutritional products.

The HLI effort, which Venter and others repeatedly described as "unprecedented" in a conference call this morning, will initially focus on basic research and development, sequencing every cancer patient who comes into the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, as well as other patients with diabetes, obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.

In a statement this morning, HLI says it has established collaborative research and development partnerships with UC San Diego, Metabolon, and the J. Craig Venter Institute. North Carolina-based Metabolon is expected to provide information about patients' metabolytes, key chemicals in their blood.

HLI also has formed a Biome Healthcare division, led by Karen Nelson, to generate gene sequencing data of the microbiome for many patients. The microbiome consists of all the microbes that live in the human gut (and elsewhere in and on the human body). New research by Nelson and others suggest that such bacteria play a key role in human health and disease.

The early goal at HLI is to sequence 40,000 human genomes a year, and amass the world's largest database of human genome sequences. HLI plans to combine its human genome data with microbiome data and phenotype databases to develop new treatments, including stem cell therapies, for aging-related diseases. Eventually, HLI intends to sequence 100,000 human genomes a year.

"We will be using that [data] to make numerous new discoveries in preventative medicine," Venter said. "We think this will have a huge impact on changing the cost of medicine and broad human health."

HLI plans to make money by providing access to its database to pharmaceutical, biotechnology and academic organizations, gene sequencing, and by developing new medical diagnostics and therapeutics. As HLI's genome-sequencing capacity increases, the company plans to sequence people of all ages -- from infants to super centenarians -- including those who are healthy as well as those with disease.

Genomic data would be shared among researchers participating in the effort, although Venter said details about protecting patient privacy are still being worked out.

DFJ partner Steve Jurvetson, who said he's an investor in HLI, asked Venter during the call to compare the effort to BGI China, one of the world's premier gene sequencing centers. BGI says on its U.S. website that it has relationships with 17 out of the top 20 global pharmaceutical companies as part of its suite of commercial science, health, agricultural, and informatics services.

Venter answered that HLI will be working with more advanced gene sequencing equipment (Illumina's HiSeq X Ten Sequencing Systems) and will have higher throughput capabilities. But he added that there is plenty of room for gene sequencing services. In fact, Venter envisions a future where genome sequencing is done routinely for every patient admitted to a hospital.

"We cannot have enough players in the human genome sequencing field," Venter said. "We're just trying to elevate it to a new level."

With $70 million in initial funding, "We think that will carry us through the first 18 months as we build these operations," Venter said. HLI already is using laboratories in San Diego for high-throughput microbiome and human genome sequencing, and has plans to build a new facility near the UC San Diego campus. HLI plans to hire about 100 scientists and others over the next year, Venter said.

"This is a revolution in biomedical research," said David A. Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine. "This is the first time ever as physician-scientists that we have had the opportunity to handle very large datasets and to be able to compare the genetics of a patient with the microbiome, as Dr. Nelson said, and with the metabolytes in the blood to try to gain new insights into our understanding of disease pathogenesis, into diagnoses, and hopefully, into new therapies and cures."

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