Venter's HLI strikes low-cost exome sequencing deal to swell data repository

J. Craig Venter

J. Craig Venter's Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) has struck a deal to provide exome sequencing services to the customers of a South Africa-based insurance firm. HLI is charging a meager $250 per exome, but in addition to the cash will get one of the other things it wants: data.

Since setting up shop to take advantage of the sequencing throughput offered by Illumina's ($ILMN) HiSeq X Ten system, HLI has scoured the globe for sources of genome samples and data to add to its repository. The deal with South African insurance group Discovery is a twist on this way of working. HLI will sequence and analyze exomes for Discovery for $250 a pop, a fee that undercuts the market rate today. Discovery will offer the sequencing service to customers in South Africa and the United Kingdom as part of a wellness program.

The low sticker price of the sequencing service is, in part, a continuation of the plummeting costs that have characterized the sector in recent years. "It's our goal to really make this [sequencing] available to broad populations," Venter told Reuters. The cost is also a reflection of the fact that HLI is getting more than just money out of its relationship with Discovery. De-identified data from clients of Discovery that take advantage of the service will add to HLI's growing repository of genotypic, phenotypic and clinical information.

"It will bring quite a lot of African genetic material into the global research base, which has been lacking," Discovery Health CEO Jonathan Broomberg told MIT Technology Review. Such data are central to what HLI is trying to do. "It would be just one more off-the-shelf genetic testing company, if the entire motivation weren't to build this large database," Venter said. "The future game is 100% in data interpretation. If we are having this conversation five to 10 years from now, it's going to be very different. It will be, 'Look how little we knew in 2015.'"

For this to work, HLI needs more than just genomes. HLI has said it will only sequence genetic materials when they come with accompanying phenotypic and clinical data. The need for a complete picture of the health of each person has driven Venter to start work on HLI Health Nucleus centers, the first of which is due to open in San Diego, CA, next month with more to follow in South Africa and the U.K. as a result of the Discovery deal. At the centers, HLI will perform genome, microbiome and metabolome sequencing. Attendees will also be given MRI body scans and traditional clinical tests.

- read Reuters' article
- here's MIT Technology Review's feature
- and the release