As genome sequencing technology increases in speed and plummets in cost, research companies can usually accomplish the task now within a few days for less than $5,000 per genome.
To highlight just how far the technology has advanced, the Archon Genomics XPRIZE presented by Express Scripts in 2006 offered $10 million to the first team that could rapidly and accurately sequence 100 whole human genomes to a standard not yet achieved back then, at a cost of $10,000 or less per genome.
As growing numbers of genome-wide studies become established, so too the impetus for further investigation. As of 2011, for example, genome sequencing has helped associate 1,450 genes with 240 diseases.
With the aim of helping researchers understand and address diseases associated with age-related decline, the DNA of humans from children to centenarians will be decoded by San Diego-based Human Longevity, Inc. and compiled into a database which will include information on both genome and microbiome (the microbes that live in our gut). Illumina, Inc., which holds a stake in the company, will provide machines needed for the testing.
Spearheading this project are J. Craig Venter, Peter Diamandis and Robert Hariri. Venter led a private team that sequenced one of the first two human genomes more than ten years ago; he is current chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a closely held San Diego-based company that is working on developing algae biofuels with funding from Exxon Mobil Corp.
Diamandis is XPrize Foundation chairman and co-founder with Venter, and stem cell researcher Robert Hariri is founder and chief scientific officer of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics—a unit of Celgene Corp. that is working on stem cell treatments.
These combined talents will merge within the company to create new tests and therapies which will help extend healthy human life spans by scanning the DNA of some 100,000 people per year into a massive database for study, with the intent of making “100-years-old the new 60.”
Venter noted that for the first time, the speed and accuracy of DNA-scanning machines has increased to the point where massive clinically oriented sequencing efforts are truly possible.
“I have been waiting for 13 years for the technology to jump up to a scale that is needed for genomics to have a significant impact” in medicine, Venter said. “We have just crossed that threshold.”
“We are setting up the world’s largest human genome sequencing facility,” Venter revealed in a telephone interview. “The goal is to promote healthy aging using advanced genomics and stem cell therapy,” he said.
With an initial $70 million in funding, the company plans to focus first on cancer.
Genome sequencing of patients at the Moores Cancer Center will be performed by the University of California at San Diego, in an agreement with Human Longevity, Inc. Plans are in the works to make individual genome data directly available to doctors at UCSD as well as to patients, according to an email from Heather Kowalski—spokeswoman for Venter and the new company—once it meets U.S. regulatory standards for providing clinical-level information.
Data on biochemicals and lipids circulating through patient body systems will also be collected, in addition to genome and microbiome data.
Google Inc. announced last September that it was also investing in a new company, Calico, focused on aging and age-related diseases, to be led by former Google director Arthur Levinson, chairman of Roche Holding AG’s Genentech unit.
Accessibility to longevity is rapidly gaining ground via bionics, once merely the stuff of science fiction. Replacement of faulty or missing body parts with high tech machine parts that integrate and function with the body, is not only already reality, but increasingly blurs what remains of a disappearing fine line between what’s human and what’s technology. Cyborg humans are here now, living among us, and are clearly harbingers of future “technological singularity”.
Artist Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia—extreme colorblindness which allowed him to see only in black and white—yet now he is able to “see” colors beyond the scope of normal human perception. How? Via a specialized electronic eye called an “eyeborg” that likens perceived color with sounds on a musical scale so that Harbisson “hears” color. As a result of incredible adaptation, Neil’s brain has formed new neural pathways allowing him to perceive in an advanced manner.
In a recent TED talk, Harbisson reported, “At the start, I had to memorize the names you give to each color and I had to memorize the notes, but after some time, all this information became a perception,” but “When I started to dream in color, I felt the software and my brain had united.”
Harbisson’s success in merging body with machine inspired him to establish the international Cyborg Foundation, an organization that assists others in transitioning from human to cyborg.
As an amputee, Jesse Sullivan became one of the world’s first cyborgs to be equipped with a bionic limb connected through a nerve-muscle graft, which he can control with his mind. Sullivan can also feel hot, cold, and applied pressure differences in his grip. Check out Jesse in this video clip.
After losing a finger in a motorcycle accident, Jerry Jalava implemented a do-it-yourself cyborg application by embedding a 2GB USB port into his prosthetic. No, it doesn’t upload data into his nervous system, but he never has to worry about misplacing a USB zip drive anymore. Click here for a demonstration of Jalava’s genius.
The next generation of technological connectivity to our environment and to the world has moved far beyond our laptops, smartphones and tablets. As we catapult from human manipulation of external technology, to human integration with technology, will we ultimately remain in control of what we’ve created? Or are we stepping into an uncharted minefield of smart cyborg machines that can “learn” and “think” for themselves.