Bob Hariri, M.D., Ph.D., is the vice chairman of Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a genomics and cell-therapy diagnostics and therapeutics company he co-founded in 2013 with Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis, which is focused on extending the healthy, high-performance human lifespan. Utilizing technological advancements in genomics, bioinformatics, computing and cell therapy, HLI plans to develop therapeutic solutions to some of the most complex yet actionable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and dementia. A recipient of the Thomas Alva Edison Award in 2007 and 2011, the former CEO of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, and one of the pioneers of the global cell-therapy industry, Bob recently sat down with me to discuss his current work on the frontiers of aging and cellular science.
You’ve formed one of the most provocative and promising companies working in the cellular sciences. How did you get together with Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis of the X PRIZE?
I am very fortunate to have two remarkable visionary friends in Craig and Peter. I have admired the work that Craig has done in the broad landscape of genomics and synthetic biology and have always been inspired by his pioneering approach as an entrepreneur. Peter is one of my closest friends, and I have marveled at how he has, virtually single-handedly, reinvented incentivized competition, catalyzing a new generation of cutting-edge businesses. The three of us realized that we shared many common passions, among which was a desire to impact human health and society by exploring aging as a targetable disease. All of us have ventured, failed and succeeded by seeking to answer scientific questions based in real-world experience and offering solutions. We all took paths that were challenged, in some cases ridiculed and rejected, by established scientific institutions. In part that’s because invention without relevance or context has less impact than true innovation. We all saw aging as an opportunity to innovate, not as an obstacle to human progress and prosperity.
What is the mission for Human Longevity?
Our mission is to extend the healthy lifespan by developing high-resolution diagnostics and stem-cell-based therapies. The tools we will develop are designed to attack the sources of premature death at the genomic and molecular level that are also linked and can be used to preserve and enhance cognitive function, physical capacity and overall vitality.
Can you tell me what the day-in, day-out working relationship with Craig and Peter is like? How do you collaborate?
For me, it is both a privilege and a humbling experience being part of a team with Craig and Peter. The raw genius of my two partners is staggering. What makes it all the more exciting is the depth and breadth of their interests, passions and personalities. We are very much alike. We are close friends, and we are optimists and hard workers. And all of us are more interested in getting things done than in taking credit for something. We work well together because we don’t see scientific failure or being wrong as setbacks but as teachable events. As a team, we are all very comfortable with risk and that makes the work environment at HLI the hottest show in town.
Can stem cells prevent aging and even turn back the clock?
We believe that stem cells that are functioning well can play an important role in extending health and improving physical and cognitive performance and cosmetic vitality. Our work in stem cells has shown that if you can identify and measure individual variation for specific markers of disease at particular ages, you can identify the factors that predict the variability in how cells change over the lifespan. Then, using the information derived by interrogation of the genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, we can tailor treatments to how individuals get sick and improve their health.
You have an innovative business model that will tap the power of the world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes. Can you tell me how this data will be applied?
We are not simply a data company. Some press accounts claim that we are engaging in “big science” and will compete with other institutes that are creating their own sequencing centers.
We recognize that most discoveries are the result of small groups taking completely novel approaches and sharing their findings. Instead, we are going to generate the most comprehensive and complete human genotype, microbiome, and phenotype database, identify the most creative people and give them the freedom to make their own affiliations.
Will HLI commercialize therapy products for aging? What is the game plan for the years ahead?
In order to develop the tools designed to attack the sources of premature death at the genomic and molecular level that are also linked and can be used to preserve and enhance cognitive function, physical capacity and overall vitality, we need data. So our goal over the next year is to accumulate the largest genomics data set. Our goal is to sequence over 1 million full human genomes, microbiomes, MRI body-image scans, metabolomes, etc. We will commercialize therapies for diseases that are associated with the biological and molecular breakdown associated with aging. And we will develop a preventive healthcare model that will take baseline measures of stem-cell function, monitor that in real time and correct any drift from optimal activity with stem-cell therapy.
Do you plan to commercialize therapies outside the confines of the traditional drug-discovery and -development model?
I have always said that placental stem cells were the platform for developing products and personalized medicine outside of the one-receptor/one-target/one-drug model.
When I started Anthrogenesis (which became Celgene Cellular Therapeutics in 2003), I wanted to show that the placenta was not just the best source of stem and progenitor cells and biomaterials, but that the unique biology of the organ was the source of tremendous therapeutic potential. We’ve shown that placental cells and the extracellular-matrix scaffolding biomaterials can be produced in such quantities and consistency that doctors could use them the same way they prescribe small molecules or biologic agents. HLI will be able to program stem cells to both modulate and stimulate cell functions to treat disease and extend healthy aging.
In what areas do you expect to make the first breakthroughs?
I can’t predict what HLI will commercialize first. We will follow the science. That said, we believe that we’ve just scratched the surface of what the combination of digitized DNA and biological data and stem cells can do for the human condition.
Longevity is a red-hot field in medicine, and many companies are jumping into the mix. How do you feel about Google’s Calico venture? Are they competition for you?
We are thrilled and excited that a remarkable company like Google has invested so actively in biomedicine and see Calico as part of what will be a rapidly expanding enterprise of age management or wellness. I hope there are many more companies who participate in helping people live longer, healthier lives.
Can you tell me about the partnership between HLI and Celgene? What do you hope to accomplish?
HLI just signed an agreement with Celgene Cellular Therapeutics (CCT) to license, develop, and co-promote one of Celgene’s proprietary placental-cell population, PSC-100, in age-related clinical indications.
We have the opportunity to explore a variety of applications for this unique cell population, including sarcopenia, a condition associated with aging characterized by degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass, quality, and strength. Celgene has also made an equity investment in HLI.
If you had a crystal ball, what does the future hold for cellular therapies and aging? What do you think the field looks like 20 years from now?
I believe stem-cell innovations will have a quantum impact on the kind of people we can be. Throughout our short history on this planet, our progress can be measured by our ability to thrive. By this, I don’t just mean the fact that we will live longer and live better or that, as a result, we will spend less on health care. Rather, I believe the technological and physical evolution of our species will increase the capacity to share, and to be more flexible, inventive and determined in the face of uncertainty.
These citizens of this new way of life will be known as “the regeneration generation.”
The regeneration generation will be able to tackle challenges and pursue endeavors consistent with the speed by which new paths are discovered and imagined. Living longer at a time when the supply of ideas and inventions increase more quickly will exponentially increase the opportunity to pursue many more possibilities.