On the eve of his 69th birthday, Craig Venter appears to be like on, amused, as his digital doppelganger shuffles from foot to foot. Venter’s white-bearded avatar is the star of an iPad app being demonstrated to me by his head of informatics, Scott Skellenger. Wearing denims and a gray V-neck T-shirt, Venter’s little digital archetype could be made to stroll, even dance.
His spouse (and publicist) Heather sits inside earshot in his large workplace in San Diego. Venter drolly remarks that he initially needed to have the ability to take away his avatar’s coronary heart “Aztec-style” or pluck out its mind for inspection and introspection. As a substitute, organized on the app across the fidgeting mini-Venter is a photo voltaic system of choices – mind segmentation, connectivity and anatomy, and intracranial arteries. I research a scan of Venter’s hips and backbone and peer inside his head. Colors reveal the totally different segments of his mind. I can clearly see his white and gray matter. “I’ve the mind of a 44-year-old,” he says. One other contact and I can examine Venter’s genome – which maps his ancestry to the UK – his gait, even his particular person footsteps captured for posterity by a wise flooring. Biotech’s greatest entrepreneur has been decomposed into binary.
His newest enterprise, Human Longevity, Inc., or HLI, creates a practical avatar of every of its clients – they name the primary batch ‘voyagers’ – to offer an intimate, pleasant interface for them to navigate the terabytes of medical info being gleaned about their genes, our bodies and skills. Venter desires HLI to create the world’s most vital database for deciphering the genetic code, so he could make healthcare extra proactive, preventative and predictive. Such information marks the beginning of a decisive shift in medication, from therapy to prevention. Venter believes we’ve got entered the digital age of biology. And he’s the primary to embark on this final journey of self-discovery.
They’re rewriting the pig genome for organ transplantation, says Venter. They hope the pigs shall be prepared by round 2020.
On the flip of the millennium, at a ceremony on the White Home involving President Clinton and UK prime minister Tony Blair, Venter had unveiled his first draft of the human genome, a mosaic of DNA from three girls and two males. It adopted a bitterly fought and ill-tempered race between his firm, Celera, and a publicly funded worldwide consortium, represented on the globally televised occasion by Francis Collins.
Either side introduced what the president referred to as the primary survey of the complete human genome, marking a significant milestone in Large Biology. That sultry day in June 2000 noticed a short pause in hostilities over one another’s strategies and outcomes, wherein Venter had accused the general public effort of being inefficient, cumbersome and self-serving, and the consortium had attacked Venter as a self-promoting egomaniac who needed to patent the human genome and, for a time, make the sequence obtainable solely to paying clients.
Science was the true winner, in fact: the competitors had accelerated the genome programme by years. Later it emerged that the biggest contribution to Venter’s genome got here from Venter himself and, just a few years later, he accomplished the job to develop into the primary human being to gaze upon his whole complement of DNA, all 6 billion chemical models.
‘Maverick’ and ‘controversial’ are among the many labels which have caught to Venter from the final century. Right this moment, his rivals from the livid part of the genome race desire to downplay his contribution to historical past, moderately than proceed to assault him because the unhealthy boy of biology. A current commentary within the journal Nature, entitled ‘Human Genome Challenge: twenty-five years of huge biology’, doesn’t point out Venter in any respect. Its coauthors embrace Collins, now Director of the US Nationwide Institutes of Well being, and Jim Watson of double-helix fame, who as soon as, notoriously, likened Venter to Hitler. But the article was accompanied by an uncredited image of Venter’s 1994 laboratory.
Venter has shrugged off the criticisms over time. Watson has buried the hatchet – he even paid a go to to HLI final October. Sure, Venter says, he can be mendacity if he didn’t admit it’s “unhappy and annoying” being airbrushed out of historical past, however “the one approach they’d have been profitable can be if I retired”. Within the 15 years for the reason that genome brouhaha, Venter has continued to coauthor papers in main journals, masking matters from genome transplants to the myriad sequences of microscopic marine life. He now has the biggest genomics sequencing facility of its form, and is on a mission to alter medication. “[I’m] not fearful in any respect about how I shall be remembered.”
In his HLI workplace, Venter’s eyes gleam as he reveals me an image of an occasion he attended in a sports activities enviornment with hundreds of highschool youngsters “enthusiastic about science and medication”. Not like the previous guard, he says, they gained’t be so exhausting to persuade about the place his analysis is taking us, stating that textbooks now describe how he shared the glory of sequencing the human genome 15 years in the past.
His critics name him boastful however, having talked to him on and off for greater than twenty years, I believe Venter has earned the proper to be bullish about his talents to construct a biotech enterprise from scratch. Sure, he could be laddish, and sure, he maintains a surfer dude’s disrespect for governments and forms. He will also be blunt. However over time I’ve discovered him (normally) affable and sometimes very humorous. The extra you meet him, the extra evident his complexities develop into. It’s too simplistic to say he’s egotistical: extra that he is aware of what he desires and, importantly, how you can inspire others to assist him get it.
His self-belief, which is hardly uncommon by the requirements of a rich Californian, is infectious. At a press convention, HLI’s Chief Medical Officer, Brad Perkins, reels off Venter’s achievements, from the primary sequence of a dwelling species to the creation of artificial genomes – Venter left his signature within the DNA of what was referred to as ‘the world’s first artificial organism’. “I didn’t pay him to say these issues,” grins Venter, “however I’ll later.” Perkins goes on – with no trace of irony – to liken Venter to a Columbus who’s exploring a terra incognita of information to “invert the present paradigm in healthcare”, from considered one of advert hoc sick care to 1 that’s primarily preventive and proactive. “Welcome to the New World,” says Perkins.
HLI has now submitted an evaluation of its first 10,000 human genomes for publication, passing a milestone in creating what Venter hopes would be the world’s largest, most complete database of knowledge to assist rework healthcare and discover solutions to one of many oldest questions of all: is it potential to defy the ravages of ageing?
A few of the longer-lived residents in America inhabit the hilly seaside neighborhood of La Jolla, a well-to-do neighbourhood of San Diego. If anywhere has elevated the chances that its residents will reside extra enduring, happier lives it’s right here, alongside this curving shoreline of the Pacific.
Within the early Nineteen Fifties, town earmarked the Torrey Pines space for analysis and light-weight trade. Biotechnology took root when Jonas Salk, who developed the primary protected and efficient polio vaccine, determined to determine his institute right here to discover the fundamental rules of life.
Right this moment, the world hosts one of many largest concentrations of educational and biotech establishments on the planet – not simply the Salk Institute however the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, the Scripps Analysis Institute, and analysis amenities for main pharma corporations akin to Novartis, Pfizer, Celgene and Vertex. “San Diego has at all times been essentially the most cooperative setting by way of organic and medical analysis,” explains Venter.