Aging. It's a universal disease, and an inescapable killer.
As more and more individuals in the developed world manage to escape premature death, life expectancy has grown dramatically in our time. Diseases like cancer and dementia can be understood as consequences of a deteriorating body for reasons science still doesn't understand. We're exploring what might be considered the natural limits of the human body, and some believe that we can choose to push those limits out.
What is a human lifespan? Is there any reason why we can't function biologically and mentally for 200 years? This is a cultural and policy question we will be exploring all week.
Would you want to live to 100? What worries you about our society if everyone could? Tell us the story of how you want to age.
Genomic and synthetic life scientist J. Craig Venter says aging is a phenomenon we can control and arrest through genomic science. He believes that by aggressively accelerating human mapping we can better understand—and prevent—the consequences of human aging.
J. Craig Venter's new project is called Human Longevity Inc. and comes with private funding and an association with the University of California San Diego. The company will combine genetic and medical data at a massive scale to come up with new ways to predict, prevent and treat diseases of aging, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's. Venter says it will be the largest DNA sequencing operation in the world—capable of processing 40,000 human genomes a year.
"Age is the number one risk factor for every disease, but it's not treated as a disease on its own," says Venter.
To crack the question of aging, Venter says his new project will connect layers of information that have never been put together, starting with the entire human genome and then layering in the genetic code of the microbes, in addition to measuring proteins and chemicals.
"We'll be doing tests that people won't necessarily be able to get anywhere else, and combining that all together," says Venter. "We're trying to get the whole picture and create a database that can actually become really predictive of what's associated with disease and what's associated with health."
While average life expectancy isn't expected to creep up to 150 anytime soon, Venter says that if humans live longer—and healthier—then we can all lead more productive lives. Right now, Venter says citizens are paying in to the retirement system for their "normal careers," which has presented challenges now that humans are living much longer and withdrawing from a system that was never intended to support a longer lifespan.
"We can solve all the economic problems by simply changing the retirement age to age 75, and still have another 20 or 30 years of healthy life after that," he says. "[If] people have a chance to be productive longer, it's good for them and good for society—retirement generally isn't good for anybody."
It seems that living well is the key to this project. Venter points to his own mother, who is 90-years-old and is "mentally intact." However, he says that despite her sharp wits, her physical self is not progressing the same way, saying that her body is "starting to wind down" and getting frail.
"There's ways, we think, in the future to change that, and at least keep people more active for a longer period of time," he says. "We're not trying to push to get 150 or 200 as a lifespan—we have a lot of other problems on the planet that we have to solve—but healthcare is now the single most expensive thing in our economy. If we go to a preventive medicine paradigm, if we try to prevent diseases instead of waiting to treat them in end stages after they occur, we can lower the healthcare budget and have people live a healthier life."
Venter says his team will be looking for protective aspects of the human genome to better fight and understand diseases of aging.
"With the FDA, we're already beginning a dialogue with them—I think the FDA is critical for this," says Venter. "Regulating test [sic] I think is an important thing because there are so many different kind of tests out there that aren't very meaningful. It's the quality of the information you're being given, does it mean anything and can you do anything with it? If you're trying to decide to have your breast removed, are you making that decision based on reliable data? This has to work very broadly for the healthcare industry. It has to be financially viable, it has to actually be truly actionable and reduce the cost of medicine if it's going to be highly successful. That can't be driven by the government."
So will these techniques be widely available to the public? Listen to the full interview to find out.