Policy

J. Craig Venter snubbed White House, but OK with working with British

During a September 2015 keynote at Mayo Clinic’s Individualizing Medicine Conference, Venter was asked whether he had any interest in teaming up with the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative — melding Human Longevity’s database with the government’s. His reply? “Unlikely.”

Craig Venter at Mayo

J. Craig Venter speaking at Mayo Clinic in 2015.

It’s pretty interesting to see who genomics luminary J. Craig Venter deems worthy of partnership.

Venter just announced he’s working with AstraZeneca as part of a massive genomics initiative: Company-wide, the pharma giant is going to use data insights from a huge swath of genomes to inform the future of its drug development.

Last year, however, Venter was not enthused to work with the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative — a federally driven U.S. effort to sequence 1 million genomes. But through this AstraZeneca collaboration, Venter’s Human Longevity Inc. will work in tandem with Genomics England — a government-driven British effort to sequence 100,000 genomes.

During a September 2015 keynote at Mayo Clinic’s Individualizing Medicine Conference, Venter was asked whether he had any interest in teaming up with the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative — melding Human Longevity’s database with the government’s. His reply? “Unlikely.”

“I think this notion that you can have genome sequences from public databases is extremely naive,” Venter said at the time. “We’re worried there will be future lawsuits from people who were guaranteed anonymity who will clearly not have it.”

At the Mayo Clinic event last year, Venter said that he’ll keep the Human Longevity data private because  it’s challenging to deal with the accuracy and quality of data when it comes from from multiple sources. While the genomes studied at Human Longevity are all sequenced with Illumina’s HiSeq X Ten, Venter has his doubts about the machines and methods used to sequence genomes from other organizations.

“We get the highest quality of data of any center off the Illumina X10 sequencers, and don’t want to commingle it with data from other sources that don’t necessarily have the same degrees of accuracy,” Venter said at the time.

The Human Longevity database will be built on self-generated data, he said, though it’ll likely share information about allele frequencies.

Of course, based on this AstraZeneca partnership, Venter won’t necessarily fold Genomics England’s insights into his company’s analytics. And when it comes to face value, Venter joined Obama for the unveiling of the Precision Medicine Initiative last year.

Notably, the issue of privacy was paramount during yesterday’s conversation with the press – relying on the strength of keeping the Human Longevity data on the Amazon Cloud as a way to protect patient information.

“Most of this data will be in secure databases,” Venter said during the AstraZeneca announcement. “It won’t be in a gene bank in the public domain — unless people are willing to give the entirety of their data away.”

In any case, it’s notable that Venter now sees that collaboration is paramount to the advancement of genomics – an observation that critics from his Human Genome Project days might appreciate.

“Genomics 15 years ago was viewed more as a competitive battle than a cooperation,” Venter said in the press event. “Now, it’s clearly not a zero-sum game.”