Healthcare is a big topic of conversation for many of us - both personally and professionally. Costs are rising, and strategies to keep expenses down are limited. Many companies offer wellness plans to their employees because healthy employees mean lower long-term insurance rates. But we all know people that eat well, exercise regularly - yet are still affected by illness. Is there any way to really find out about and treat employee's health problems before they become known?
J. Craig Venter has been asking the same question. "How do you know [people are] healthy?" Venter pointed out in this Forbes article. "We use a definition of health out of the Middle Ages: If you look okay and you feel okay, you're deemed healthy. We have a different way of looking at people."
The 70-year-old Venter is a well-known scientist and entrepreneur in the biotech field whose institute was one of the first to map the genetic code of an organism. He's certainly made enemies on the way - one Nobel Laureate even compared him to Hitler. But over the past few years, Venter has raised more than $300 million from venture tech firms like Celgene and GE Ventures to create a new company called Human Longevity. It's core product? A $25,000 executive physical.
The physical relies on DNA sequencing, a science to which Venter has devoted his life. He says that, thanks to new technology and powerful computer processing, he can take DNA from one person's genes and compare it to another for things like eye colors, nose size and, most importantly, diseases - all in a much shorter time period than ever before. He already has data from the DNA of 40,000 people that participated in previous clinical trials with other companies. Now he's conducting additional clinical trials to show that his testing will be able to compare the DNA data of participants to this core database and identify diseases well before they occur.
Yes, there's profit involved. Venter is charging $25,000 for the privilege of participating in his trials, and so far, close to 500 people have participated. He's looking to serve about 2,000 people annually. That means $50 million in revenue.
Venter has his critics. Colleagues in the past have accused him of putting profits over science. Some well-known doctors are skeptical of his model. "We've been down this road of investigating healthy patients, and it's been a sordid road," said one urologist in the Forbes article. The piece also quotes Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, as saying that Venter's work is "fascinating science," but that people must understand that "this is research, not medicine."
Venter thinks the more we know in advance, the better we'll be at treating the disease. About 40% of his patients have found something serious as a result of the testing, and a few have used this information to seek early treatment, which Venter believes has saved their lives.