Aspen Times Weekly: How Long Do You Want to Live?
Aging in Aspen is different than in other places.
Walk the malls or the streets, and you'll see people of a certain age, call it 60-plus, who glow with life. Take to the steep roads or trails just after dawn and you will be passed by geriatric joggers and cyclists, mixed in with the millennials and Gen-Xers, riding or running up the substantial hills, getting miles in before breakfast.
Aspenites of all ages embrace their physicality. They are in shape and they are either living the later years of their lives to the fullest, on their own terms, or actively pursuing healthy practices so that their futures will also be bright.
At a plethora of events like last week's Aspen Brain Lab and the Aspen Institute's Spotlight Health, presented earlier this summer, Aspenites engage with each other and with new, sometimes revolutionary ideas in health care. Make no mistake, the outsized financial resources of the community allow many to benefit from the best health care that money can buy.
Let's face it, this is an amazing place to grow old.
A POTENTIALLY NEW PARADIGM
Last week, in a lovely private home at the base of Smuggler Mountain, a small group of Aspenites gathered to hear of a budding revolution in health care. As the assembled, ranging in age from late 30s to their mid 70s, relaxed in chairs and on sofas in the well-appointed living room, sipping wine and sampling spring rolls, they listened to a presentation that proposed the potential to change the way they look at their own health. And their future, as well.
While the first nourishing rain in months pelted the roof and shrouded the Aspen Mountain views from the house, J. Craig Venter, who gained fame, acclaim and fortune in the early 2000s for his role in the quest to sequence the human genome, explained how his latest creation, Human Longevity, Inc., in La Jolla, California, is working to turn the world of health care upside down.
Venter, a vibrant 70-year-old, co-founded Human Longevity to provide people with the most complete and intensive genetic and physical assessments of their health that has ever existed. These "road maps" show clients, in intimate detail, the exact condition of their bodies at a given moment in time, and what pitfalls may exist for the future based upon their genetic makeup.
Sitting comfortably with his toy poodle, Darwin, on his lap, the bearded Venter detailed his vision for the company that has raised over $300 million in capital from investors, including Celgene and GE Ventures. The goal is to give people, and eventually health care companies, advance information about pre-existing health issues so that the focus can be on prevention as a health care option, rather than continuing the long entrenched tradition of "fixing" people after they have already developed maladies or life threatening diseases.
Perhaps because of Venter's earlier success with the human genome, his project is receiving much attention. Last year he was here in Aspen to address the Ideas Festival and speak at the Charlie Rose Weekend event. This spring he was the subject of a Forbes Magazine cover story on the project and has also been featured in documentaries produced by production companies as disparate as NOVA and Red Bull TV. Though he is not without his detractors, some of whom find him arrogant and infused with an outsized disrespect for established medical conventions, Venter is once again on a quest for change.
Like Amazon revolutionizing shopping, Tesla challenging the automotive industry and Uber disrupting transportation, Human Longevity's intentions, if successful, would transform the status quo of the medical, pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.
THE HEALTH NUCLEUS PROGRAM
The product of the Human Longevity is knowledge on a disk.
Clients currently come to a luxurious facility in La Jolla for a physical assessment unlike any that has previously been available to human beings. Called the Health Nucleus, the procedure calls for a complete review and analysis of a client's physical health. When completed, clients walk away with a disk that details both their DNA and their current state of health.
The first element of the Health Nucleus, and perhaps most revolutionary, is the process of a whole genome sequencing of each client, the actual mapping of their personal genetic code, or their DNA. Every cell of a person has 23 pairs of chromosomes. In each chromosome there are millions of pieces of information. Think of these as individual words or letters that are unique to any and every individual. This is the genetic story of our lives. "Add it all up and there are 6.4 billion characters of code in each of us," Venter said.
This data tells us everything about our physical makeup. The color of our eyes and hair, how tall we will grow, whether we are right-handed or left-handed. And it also tells us what diseases we may be susceptible to, or even pre-ordained for. From cancers to cardiovascular issues, which combined account for two-thirds of all deaths in this country, to metabolic and neurological issues, the genome sequencing provides insights into what potential health issues we should be aware of.
At the completion of the whole genome sequencing, the information is analyzed and cross-referenced with the largest database of full genotypic information that currently exists. A 500-page report is prepared, including with a short summation, for each client. "When we did the first genome sequencing in 2000 we built a $50 million computer and the cost of the process was $100 million. Today, thanks to the progress in computing power, we are able to do a sequence in 12 minutes at a cost of closer to $1,000," Venter said to the intrigued group. "The computing power we have today is 1,350 times greater than when we first started sequencing the genome."
The second component of the Health Nucleus is a full body and brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI. This state of the art technology uses high frequency radio waves to produce vivid, vibrant and previously unimaginably clear images of internal organs. And, in contrast to previous technologies like cat scans, it requires no radiation.
This MRI will show, with a multitude of cross sections, what is inside your body and the state of health it is in. Ever want to see the size of your hippocampus in full Technicolor? How about your kidney in 3-D? At the conclusion of the session, as many as 18,000 images of the client's body can be accessed.
These exams are not just for the aged. In fact, the ability for the Health Nucleus examinations to offer a base line of health information can change the way younger people plan for their health care throughout their lives. "We have performed assessments on people from 18 to 99 years old," Venter said. He recommended that the procedures are appropriate for people, beginning in their 20s and 30s.
REAL LIFE MEANING
But beyond just the novelty and wonder of seeing what the inside of your body looks like, the MRI has the capability of identifying real life-threatening issues that may go undetected in other types of physicals. "Forty percent of the people who undergo the assessments have something to address. Two-and-a-half percent who come in have cancers," Venter said. "We see lots of aneurysms that are treatable and incidents of prostate cancers in men."
"Early detections are extremely rewarding," Venter said with a degree of irony, before explaining his own experience with the assessments. "Last year I underwent a physical with my doctor and showed no indications of any issues. I then went through our Health Nucleus assessment and discovered, to my shock, that I had high-grade prostate cancer." After undergoing treatment last November, Venter is now cancer free.
Choking up in front of the group, Venter also told the story of his science mentor, partner and friend, Nobel laureate in medicine Hamilton Smith, 85, who found he had a deadly lymphoma while undergoing an evaluation using the Health Nucleus assessment. He, too, underwent treatment and is doing well. "Ham would likely not be alive today if we had not begun this project."
The Health Nucleus project is still in its development stages and there are issues to be reckoned with. Colon cancers, for example, cannot be identified reliably as of yet, so colonoscopies are still recommended. Stat News, an online health journalism site produced by Boston Globe Media, recently presented an article stating that there are components of the human genome that have yet to be decoded that could affect the accuracy of current sequencing. Finding physicians who have the capability to review the data properly can be a challenge. And the costs of the Health Nucleus screenings are not currently covered by insurance and must be paid out of pocket.
But Venter is aggressively moving forward. It was announced that Human Longevity will be opening 10 new clinics throughout the nation; unfortunately Aspen is not currently on the docket. And perhaps most importantly, HLI has introduced two new versions of its consumer assessments at price points of $4,900 or $7,500, considerably less than the original Health Nucleus Platinum program that costs $25,000. Expectations are those costs will come down in the future as the program scales up.
While immortality may never be an option, increasing one's life span by a number of years by predicting and preventing treatable disease may well be the wave of the future. When I asked J. Craig Venter how long he wants to live, he looked wistfully across the room toward his wife, Heather. "Well, I'd like to see this project through," he said with a stiff upper lip. Then, in a much softer voice, "And I'd like to spend as much time with my wife as I possibly can."
For those who can afford it and are interested in knowing as much about their health options as is possible, and potentially reducing the onset of preventable disease, the Health Nucleus testing may be very attractive. As Aspenite Joe Nevin, who hosted the gathering, asked, "Why wouldn't you want to know?"