Biotech Entrepreneur Peers into Your Medical Future (for £16,500)

By Annalee Newitz on at

Biotech visionary and entrepreneur Craig Venter, famous for inventing a technique to sequence his own genome back in the 1990s, has embarked on a new venture. For $25,000 (just over £16,500), his startup Human Longevity will give you every possible futuristic medical test, potentially revealing your risk for Alzheimer’s.

Over at STAT, Carl Zimmer has a fascinating profile of Venter’s new suite of projects devoted to making the quantified self a luxury service.

The test offering (which includes everything from genome sequencing to brain imaging) is part of a service called Human Nucleus, which is under Human Longevity’s umbrella. Unlike troubled company Theranos, Human Nucleus isn’t promising the tests will actually aid with diagnosis yet. He’s simply offering it as a research service that well-heeled clients can get under the supervision of a doctor. But his hope is that eventually Health Nucleus will amass enough data that researchers will start to see patterns, connecting DNA sequences to diseases, or brain structures with Alzheimer’s.

Zimmer explains what you get for your money:

The battery of tests that Health Nucleus customers get for their steep payment include two kinds of genome sequencing. They get their own genome sequenced, along with the genomes of the microbes that live in their body. Blood tests measure a wide range of metabolic compounds produced by both the customers and their microbes. To measure the cardiovascular health of customers, Health Nucleus will use a method called 4D echocardiography, which captures the three-dimensional shape of the heart over time. With a technique called carotid intimal media thickness testing, Health Nucleus staff will measure the plaque on blood vessel walls.

As part of their exam, Health Nucleus customers also climb into a powerful magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The scanning reveals fine details of the brain, including the volume of different regions and the shape of brain blood vessels. “We can say something truly quantitative and predictive about a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s dementia,” said David Karow, Health Nucleus’s radiology consultant and an assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Using a method called diffusion-weighted imaging, Health Nucleus also creates whole-body scans, which map the three-dimensional structure of fat deposits in customers and detect small tumors, which can be more successfully treated than ones discovered later.

Researchers then put together what the Health Nucleus website describes as “a personalized care plan delivered to you and your physician.”

But will these tests actually help you understand your future health outlook? Many of the doctors and researchers Zimmer talked to who don’t work at Human Longevity were sceptical. At this point, the whole thing is a high-end service that’s a scientific version of a weeklong spa getaway.

Still, Venter has often made genuine scientific breakthroughs by starting out with controversial ways of gathering data–and money.

Read the whole story on STAT.