WHEN: Today, Wednesday, March 28th
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC EXCLUSIVE interview with J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Co-Founder, Executive Chairman and CEO, Human Longevity; Founder, Executive Chairman and CEO, J. Craig Venter Institute, live from CNBC's Healthy Returns conference in New York City on Wednesday, March 28th.
Mandatory credit: CNBC's Healthy Returns conference.
Realtime Transcription by www.RealtimeTranscription.com
JOE KERNEN: All right. Great to be here. Hi. That was a good intro from Tyler. I have my own way of introducing Craig Venter, and that was that in the history of the world the great things about scientists is they literally find out things that no previous human had ever found out. And when you hear the name "Venter," I try to think of who I could go back to. You guys have heard of Mendel or Darwin or Watson and Crick. But if you're the first to sequence the human genome, your name is going to be there. It is. It's the first time it was done. He did that. That was 18 years ago. You also -- everybody might not be up to speed on this. He synthesized a chromosome and put it into a bacterium and changed the species purely from chemistry, created life through chemistry, which is a pretty big milestone, as well. What we want to talk about is a total shift in where your priorities were, and this is a commercial venture to apply all this basic science to actually helping people live longer and helping diagnose disease. Because for 18 years it's been slow going, I think. Right? I would have thought by now, after sequencing the genome, we'd have all these drugs, all these rational drugs. We'd be curing everything. That's not the case. But you've maybe found a way to help even more so.
CRAIG VENTER: Well, the first genome cost me $100 million to do. So that's not very replicable. If we're going to do millions of genomes, we had to wait till the cost came down. And just four years ago, it got below a thousand dollars. And our view that the only way to understand the human genome is to have hundreds of thousands of millions of genomes, each one coupled with that person's physiology and medical records where possible, and that's what we set up Human Longevity to do, is to really understand. It's a data company, more than anything else, and we set up this huge phenotyping facility and just had normal people come in.
JOE KERNEN: So phenotypes are -- you have a genotype, which is your genome. The expression of it is in -- in your body is your --
CRAIG VENTER: Your physical characters.
JOE KERNEN: So you were trying to do comparative biology with all these different --
CRAIG VENTER: Yes.
JOE KERNEN: By compiling -- suddenly you found out, you're seeing ways of diagnosing tumors before they happen. Was that -- it was almost serendipitous that you realized you could use --
CRAIG VENTER: It happened from client 1. It was a physician who came in. We have this new technique where we don't use any contrast in the MRI, and we have algorithms that process the data. The slide sort of explains it. MRI measures water molecules. Tumor cells, the nuclei is larger and they have more water molecules, but they have less motion. So they give off this bright signal that you see of that orange that signifies that being a tumor.
So this was the very first individual to come through the Health Nucleus. Everybody by definition, self-definition, was completely healthy.
JOE KERNEN: They appeared healthy?
CRAIG VENTER: And they felt okay.
JOE KERNEN: And then you found the first guy you did this --
CRAIG VENTER: We found this large tumor right under his breastbone.
JOE KERNEN: And it was that clear.
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: But on a normal -- these are the most advanced MRI machines.
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: But it's the way you use machine learning to -- from algorithm --
CRAIG VENTER: We now use machine learning to try and replace radiologists to do this better than humans can, and more accurately. You can see that the tumor lights up like a light bulb.
JOE KERNEN: On the left, that's a normal MRI, right? That's what we use -- that's what a doctor used to look at. On the right is what you do at Human Longevity.
CRAIG VENTER: That's right. We add to it. So we combine the two. So here's an example of prostate cancer. So in my own case, you know, I understand the failure of traditional medicine that is responsive to symptoms. You know, you have symptoms, you go in. So I had continually elevated PSA over 20 years.
JOE KERNEN: This is literally you. That's not you there?
CRAIG VENTER: That's not mine.
JOE KERNEN: That's not you. But this did happen to you?
CRAIG VENTER: This happened to me. I had biopsies and was told that I was cancer-free; that I just had an enlarged prostate. Going through my own clinic and testing everything, I looked close to like this, and I had radiologist that came and told me that I had very high-grade prostate cancer, and if it wasn't removed pretty quickly, it would metastasize soon. In fact, I had surgery a couple weeks later. It actually had started to metastasize, but they got it all and I've been cancer-free ever since. Had I not gone through this, I would have just, you know, upon traditional medicine, thought I was cancer-free because the urologist said I was, from the biopsies. But we can use this with all kinds of tumors. These are lymphomas that showed up. We find cancers in about 5 percent of everybody over 50. These are cancers that are life-threatening tumors that these people have no awareness that they have.
JOE KERNEN: And I don't know whether I -- I think I'm right on this. We've looked for things in cancer that all cancers express, and it's hard to find something.
CRAIG VENTER: Right.
JOE KERNEN: But the way that the nucleus or nuclei --
CRAIG VENTER: We just see them. They show up because of the water --
JOE KERNEN: Because of the water --
CRAIG VENTER: -- properties.
JOE KERNEN: They're different. So it's lymphomas. It's solid tumors. It's brain tumors --
CRAIG VENTER: So we're doing a trial right now to see if we can do this with breast cancer. Because there's no contrast in the MRI so there's no risk, and we're trying to see if we can --
JOE KERNEN: Contrast is radiation, right?
CRAIG VENTER: No, contrast is --
JOE KERNEN: But it's much more invasive?
CRAIG VENTER: It's a chemical that about 5 percent of people have a really bad reaction to. And so setting up a research study, you don't want to send 5 percent of your subjects to the emergency room. But we think the same thing we're getting with prostate and these other cancers, we'll be able to do with breast cancer. And our hope is to eliminate the mammography, which has a very high false-positive rate. Mammography is just X-ray, so it can't distinguish between a cyst and a tumor like the MRI with our processing can. So we can use this in multiple ways. But the MRI gives us a lot more data, it gives us metabolic data.
JOE KERNEN: This is -- we should point out that if you go to HLI and get -- and, again, we'll talk about how much it costs and get it done, but there's that for cancer. But then there are things that using -- sequencing a person's genome, you can see as if -- if you're predisposed to certain cancers; and there's also algorithms that are used there, and then there's two or three other things.
CRAIG VENTER: So it all goes together. Sometimes the genome comes first and gives us the data. So we have what we call an NL1 study. It actually started at my institute with a 16-year-old girl whose family brought her to us. Her younger brother died at age 12 from a glioblastoma. So we got her genome sequence and found that she had several mutated oncogenes, putting her at very high risk for cancer. No hospital would touch her, no hospital would screen her. They wouldn't do an MRI because she wasn't sick, she didn't have anything; she just had this genetic predisposition. So we set up a program. She just turned 18. Every six months she comes to the Health Nucleus, gets a whole body MRI scan and a chemical scan. And our goal is, when she gets cancer, to detect it at Stage 0 so it can be treated right away. And, so, in that case, the genome came first. Other ways, we're trying to mix the two together.
JOE KERNEN: And this is a metabolic disease, totally different than using the MRI, for diabetes?
CRAIG VENTER: No, it's all out of the MRI. An hour, you get all this information on your brain, your heart, your metabolic state. I don't know how many of you can tell me that you know what your liver fat concentration is, because it's not normally measured. It's a measurement that just comes out of the MRI. Normal is 4 percent or less. We've had people up to 38 percent, and they can go on to develop cirrhosis and actually need a transplant. Again, none of these people think they're sick. They all thought they were perfectly healthy. 23 percent of all age groups have an elevated liver fat. And it's something -- I was on a 30-mile bike ride with one of the world's experts on organ fat. And we were about halfway through, we stopped for a break. And he said: You know, exercise won't reduce your organ fat; only reducing calories in your diet will. I said: Why in the hell didn't you tell me 15 miles earlier? But it's really important; and you control it, and you can measure it. And people use this now as a parameter to change their lives by totally changing their diets or regime. And now there's a way to measure it. And we give you this kind of information, a complete description of the muscle, the fat, the proportions in your body. So the green there is the organ fat. That's what's dangerous. It's not the peripheral fat that everybody is so concerned with cosmetically. It's the green stuff that will kill you.
JOE KERNEN: BMI is useless?
CRAIG VENTER: BMI is not a very good parameter. So we give people quantitative data about what goes on. And we look at the brain at the same time. This is using the same algorithms. You could only get pictures like this before if you injected people with contrast. Now we get it just by this post-processing algorithm. So we get a detailed picture from head to toe of your blood vessels. In 1 percent of people, we find aneurysms, brain aneurysms. So this one that's about the size of a grape, the neurosurgeons wanted to do something about it immediately. Usually you find out you have a brain aneurysm, you go to the emergency room with a massive headache, a massive bleed, and usually die a short while later. It's not a very good diagnostic method. So not everybody that we find these in, they're going to burst. But when they're like this, the chances of that person dying relatively quickly is very high. So 1 percent of the population, of the majority under age 50 that have these.
JOE KERNEN: 1 out of 100 people, they have no idea?
CRAIG VENTER: No idea. And I didn't mention at the beginning, so with this size audience, looking around, if you make it to age 50 and you're a male, you -- 40 percent of you will not make it to age 74. If you're a female and you make it to age 50, 28 percent will not live to age 74. Two-thirds of the reason is heart disease and cancer. And so we're approaching the whole body at once with all our measurements, just finding these cancers. These people, including myself, are going to live a whole lot longer than we would have naturally. We measure a lot about the heart in different ways. The new MRI does a complete heart analysis in 12 minutes. We do 4D echo, we do cardiac CT, and so we're finding this cardiac calcium is elevated significantly in about 12 percent of the population. The surprising thing, half are under age 60. And we're seeing more and more women coming in younger with heart disease. We had one woman, 45, who had calcium in four coronary arteries, putting her at 99 percent risk for a major heart attack in the next decade. She thought she was perfectly healthy, and she clearly wasn't. We look at the brain in a whole lot of detail. They get colorized by regions. You can diagnose the Alzheimer's disease here. The little yellow area is the hippocampus. That's one of the major parts of the brain that change first. It's associated with memory. You can see on the left the hippocampus is shrunk way down. But we quantitatively measure other parts of the brain, not just that. But here is where there's a discrepancy between the genetics and what we find sometimes, and this is true for breast cancer as well. If you have changes in BRCA1 and BRCA2 and no other family history information, you only have a 50 percent lifetime chance of getting breast or ovarian cancer. If you have two doses of this APOE4 gene change, it puts you at a very high risk for Alzheimer's disease. But here's a 73-year-old man whose brain was totally normal, more like a 50-year-old person, even though he had two copies of the gene. So this is what leads to discoveries, because we can now look for what's in his genome that's protecting him from getting Alzheimer's disease. So about 24 percent of the population has an increased genetic risk, and we're finding 82 percent of those have actual physical changes that we can see. And this -- the last one I'll show, we give a comprehensive report measuring all these different colored regions of the brain. The 74-year-old, I don't know if you can see it, a green line there. That would be his predicted risk from his genome. The orange line is his actual risk, and we give people a regimen that if you follow it, he can drop from that orange line down to the bottom line. So you can -- if you know early on, you can totally change your risk for Alzheimer's disease and when you get it. So keep in mind, everybody we see thinks they're completely healthy and normal. So the definition of health has been the same, you know, from the middle ages: You look okay and you feel okay. We're showing that we have new ways of measuring the body, measuring the brain, and finding things at early stages instead of waiting till they metastasize, waiting until they're affected, and then you're stuck and they kill you and you die before 74.
JOE KERNEN: So Dr. Venter's ambitious plan is to have a hundred of these clinics in how many years?
CRAIG VENTER: We hope to have 100 to 200 over the next 3 to 4 years, spread around the country.
JOE KERNEN: The price of it has come down to yearly, to get most of the tests, would be about $5,000?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah. We started at $25,000, and now the new version we just announced today is $4900. We still have a $25,000 version, but that covers a three-year period. We're trying to -- if you view your first trip is to establish your baseline, then you have something to compare to for the rest of your life. And so coming back constantly and continually will give you a tremendous data set about yourself.
JOE KERNEN: Having -- so if you get a chance, there's a great book, Life at the Speed of Light. You see that these great discoveries, it's like we did this, we did that, we did this, and then you realize, I mean, Dr. Venter makes a point, some of the small obstacles took two years of round-the-clock work to get around some of these obstacles. So the genome was sequenced 18 years ago.
CRAIG VENTER: We're just starting.
JOE KERNEN: What percentage of the genome do we know what it does?
CRAIG VENTER: I'd say around 1 percent.
JOE KERNEN: 1 percent. So two years to get over the slightest thing in a bacterial cell. So how do you figure out the function of all these genes, and how long does it take before you can say this gene does this, let's design a therapeutic to cure this disease? We could be 50, 100 years from now. But suddenly you stumble onto this early detection. Is "stumble" the right word? Because you thought you were --
CRAIG VENTER: It is, because we thought we were just going to collect normal phenotype data on people --
JOE KERNEN: And suddenly you see --
CRAIG VENTER: -- and compare it back to the genome. And we found that 40 percent of people who think they're completely healthy have something wrong, and that -- that they're unaware of. And so that changed that. But what we do with all this data, we use machine learning to compare back to the genome, to find the genetic links. And the one example we published on this, we wanted to be able to see if we could predict people's faces. So we took 3D photos of a thousand people, machine learning, and now just from when you get your genome done, we'll actually give you a computer-generated face mask of what you looked like around age 17. And we did that just to show how we can take any physical parameter, relate it back with machine learning and find the genetic link. So the future is going to be more like this 18-year-old girl where the genome will be the start of the triage, which makes it very fast, and it will be extremely cheap in a few years. And it's pretty darned cheap now compared to what it used to cost. So the whole genome cost less than most labs charge for a BRCA1 gene. So that's what's changing rapidly. Like in the last panel, it's big data. It's using the big data. It's using the machine learning and deep learning to correlate all this data together.
JOE KERNEN: So whenever there's advances made, there's going to be skepticism. But there's also going to be certain entities that have a vested interest in the status quo?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: And you can positively identify that this is happening as an obstacle to some of your efforts, whether it be oncologists or people that benefit from chronic diseases or hospitals or drug companies.
CRAIG VENTER: Several well-known physicians have given statements to the press that getting these screens is a total waste of time and money. But they're basing on things from the 1970s when CT scanning, which is X-rays -- people set up these whole body CT scanning clinics. And just like with the mammography, you can't tell the difference between a tumor and a cyst. Our new tools with MRI, without contrast, just using the algorithms, we can tell what's a cyst, what's a tumor. That's a big leap forward in this early screening that we do. And it's saving people's lives, because when you find cancer at Stage 0 or Stage 1, as in my case, you can treat it; and I'm cancer free. The very first individual that came in was a physician. He knew he had cancer for one week, had it removed, and has been cancer free ever since. If he waited another year or two, it would have metastasized. If I'd waited even a few months, mine would have metastasized and been a totally different situation of life-long treatments trying to get rid of these tumors.
JOE KERNEN: You had previous commercial ventures that I think was going to be a longer path, probably, before revenue run rates went up?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: But you have a -- is it a realistic projection? You told me you thought a billion dollars in revenue within ...
CRAIG VENTER: So we just celebrated our fourth year anniversary. We expect we'll be over a billion-dollar revenue within four years.
JOE KERNEN: And you even talked about IPO. You're in fund-raising. All this is happening?
CRAIG VENTER: Yes.
JOE KERNEN: This is going forward?
CRAIG VENTER: This is expensive research. And the equipment, building these clinics, is not cheap. But we save lives every single day.
JOE KERNEN: I don't think I'm overstating. This is going to be bigger than Theranos. I'm pretty sure this is going to be -- correct me if I'm wrong. Don't you think that --
CRAIG VENTER: I'm not as good looking, but our data is real.
JOE KERNEN: I told you I wasn't going to say that, didn't I?
CRAIG VENTER: I know, but you led me down there.
JOE KERNEN: I did. We could talk about so many different -- could we just talk for a moment about the convergence of digital and biochemistry? Because Dr. Venter will tell you, and it's in the book, for how long -- for 2,000 years, there's been the idea that there's something called vitalism. And there's some transcendent quality to life that separates it from matter, from chemistry?
CRAIG VENTER: People have been arguing for centuries. We had quotes from the 16- and 1700s from scientists who were sure that life would have a chemical basis, and they were always shot down by the vitalists who were sure there was some magic element. What we proved with just chemically making the genome from four different chemicals and booting it up.
JOE KERNEN: Booting it up, software. It is essentially software?
CRAIG VENTER: It is our software. Our genome is our software of life. We're affected by external events. But the reason we all look remarkably similar and our genomes in the entire human population are only about 3 percent different, but those 6.4 billion letters of genetic code, code for our structures, our personalities, how our brains work. Anybody who's had more than one child knows they can come up with a unique personality from day one. That's built-in programming. We are just at the earliest stages of beginning to understand that.
JOE KERNEN: So you synthesized a genome of one species of bacteria, and you put it in -- you synthesized it?
CRAIG VENTER: Yes.
JOE KERNEN: You put it into a host bacterium --
CRAIG VENTER: Just to boot it up.
JOE KERNEN: -- and changed it into that species. But now people are saying you didn't have the other organelles, you didn't have whatever was in the cells; there was still a host cell there that could have some vitalism?
CRAIG VENTER: Well, what the host cell had was the --
JOE KERNEN: Machinery?
CRAIG VENTER: -- that could read the DNA and boot it up.
JOE KERNEN: Could you do it from scratch?
CRAIG VENTER: So, you know, it's a definition. What is "scratch"? When people make a cake from scratch, as I use in the book, they think they buy a bag of flour. They're not making the flour from chemical basis and stuff. So we are pretty close to scratch. If we can get life without life, yes, that will be possible. That's -- it's not a big challenge in science. I think it's more trying to understand all these components so we can predict the future. And, as you know, we're using the synthetic approaches and the ability to email life around. We made a synthetic flu vaccine, that was the first time we ever stockpiled a flu vaccine in advance. The FDA actually approved our synthetic vaccine. This year was no different. The vaccine doesn't match the strain that we're all being infected with. That's because it's a decision made by this group of not using any of this data in Geneva well in advance of the flu season. As soon as people get flu, we could sequence it within two weeks, starting on the process of making a new vaccine. And we can send the new vaccine around the world in a fraction of a second. So we're not using the tools we have now available in medicine to stop flu completely.
JOE KERNEN: And there was a pandemic not that long ago where 50 million people --
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: -- on -- and that's not impossible to happen again?
CRAIG VENTER: No, it's a big concern today, because the population is much denser. And we've designed a device you could hook up to your home computer and download the flu vaccine that we just made a week before.
JOE KERNEN: There are safeguards, and -- I know you didn't want to talk about this, either, but -- and it goes back to I think even the '70s, right? There was a project to do what -- that laid out guidelines because of the fears of an Andromeda Strain or of a terrorist getting ACKA or something?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: Your point is that the upside to what we're going to be able to do so far outweighs any of the risks that you have to sort of just accept the downside. But --
CRAIG VENTER: Well, look at all these young kids that have died just in the U.S. with this latest round of flu. There's no reason for that. That doesn't have to happen. And the risk of bioterrorism is low compared to the risk of new emerging strains that can cause pandemics.
JOE KERNEN: The Russians sequenced, what, small pox, right? And made the most virulent form. They know exactly what makes it more contagious. They know exactly how to do it, don't they?
CRAIG VENTER: Yes. Yeah.
JOE KERNEN: So we feel okay with that?
CRAIG VENTER: I don't feel okay with it.
JOE KERNEN: Well, how do we --
CRAIG VENTER: And that's why we had this bioweapons treaty that every country -- they're supposed to stop research on making any bioweapons. The U.S. did. Some countries kept their stockpiles.
JOE KERNEN: We need more -- there was a panel with the University of -- the President of the University of Pennsylvania, I think. That was just a couple of years ago, wasn't it? When was that?
CRAIG VENTER: Yes.
JOE KERNEN: And what -- Isaac Asimov had four rules for robots, right? You have it for synthetic genomes, right? It can't harm a human. It can't --
CRAIG VENTER: The concern is the dual use. So anything that's a new technology in biology, where we can synthesize life, some people could use it for harm. But I'd rather everybody here come and sign up for the Health Nucleus and live at least 20 years longer than they would otherwise.
JOE KERNEN: Very good. And we want him to have a long human life because you don't believe that there's an upper limit of 105 or 110?
CRAIG VENTER: No. We don't know what the limit is.
JOE KERNEN: And you could theoretically design new organs that went bad. I mean, that's not that far off, is it?
CRAIG VENTER: So at my other company, Synthetic Genomics, we've been working with United Therapeutics to rewrite the genome of pigs to humanize the organs for transplant patients. A million people dying each year in the U.S. due to lack of organs for transplantation. So we're trying to make the pig organs with human antigens so they can replace and be used for transplantation. But the first trials will probably start next year because it's such a high demand. So that's engineering. It's actually engineering the pig to be more humanlike so we can use the organs. Instead of making artificial organs, the pigs are making ones that we can use with our genes.
JOE KERNEN: All right. Last question, I guess. So there's -- you need to distinguish between synthetic life and artificial life. So synthetic life is what you do. Artificial life, for lack of a better term, is like HAL, isn't it? Sort of like a --
CRAIG VENTER: It's like life in Los Angeles.
JOE KERNEN: But can't you -- the singularity. When machine learning is a billion times as powerful as what all humankind has ever, will there be silicon-based life?
CRAIG VENTER: There'll be silicon-based robots and things that --
JOE KERNEN: Will it be called -- will it be akin to life? Will it -- and then vitalism will be really dead.
CRAIG VENTER: They won't be self-replicating, although robots can make copies of themselves. So, yeah, with machine learning and all the advances that are taking place, I think they won't be biological entities the way we are, but in the future there'll be more and more human enhancements. You know, I want a USB port right here, so I can get upgraded.
JOE KERNEN: Do you need a joint degree in computer science and biochemistry now to be successful at HLI?
CRAIG VENTER: No, we hire a lot of computer scientists. It helps if they know some biology and molecular biology, but they learn it while they're doing it. We used to hire biologists and try to get them to learn the computational approaches. We really need the specialists. We need the specialists in machine learning and deep learning. If they have a medical background, that's wonderful. The woman who developed the algorithm to read the MRIs is a woman radiologist who knows machine learning. So the combinations are really powerful, but they're rare.
JOE KERNEN: Okay. Took me a while to read the book. We only had a half hour. I mean, it was fascinating. Anything else you want to close with? I mean, your mind soars through all these, that you can't help yourself, I don't think.
CRAIG VENTER: So the challenge is: What does this mean for healthcare, right? We think doing preventative healthcare, finding diseases before they progress, stopping them before they even start by doing things even earlier, could save the economy trillions of dollars. It's going to be hard to do because there's going to be so many winners and losers, and the losers are going to be inhibiting changing to a new system.
JOE KERNEN: All right. We're going to end it. But I will say that you asked Elizabeth Holmes to see how they did that, and she said no?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah. She was a friend who I knew before she started Theranos, and we were excited about what she was doing and went up to see her. And she wouldn't show us what --
JOE KERNEN: It works, but it's back in the back room, and we can't show you?
CRAIG VENTER: Yeah, yeah. Scientists always worry about that when that happens.
JOE KERNEN: All right. Thank you.
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