Pamela A. MacLean
Where better to search for the fountain of youth than in the genes of the oldest people on Earth?
The futuristic Archon Genomics X Prize will conduct a
global quest for 100 centenarians who will allow sequencing of their complete
genomes as part of the latest $10 million X Prize competition, according to
Grant Campany, senior director of the contest.
Fittingly, Campany announced the expansion of the search
Monday during the national conference of the Gerontological Society of
A coalition of research groups from Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan and
Australia will aid in the hunt for participants.
The goal of the prize is to find a research team to build a
quick and inexpensive technology to accurately sequence 100 complete human
genomes in just 30 days. And by using a group of centenarians, researchers may
get closer to understanding whether there is a “longevity gene,” a magic key
that helped the participants survive for a century or more.
“In January 2013, teams from around the world will be getting vials of DNA from each of the 100 people we are sampling, and they are given 30 days to sequence the genomes,” said Campany.
To win, the teams must accurately sequence all 100 human
genomes for the centenarians. In return, the winning team will receive $10
million in the contest, which is sponsored by Medco.
In addition to the potential of finding a veritable
fountain of youth, the competition provides an unprecedented opportunity to
identify potentially “rare genes” that might protect people from disease and
add to scientific understanding of longevity.
The organizers expect eight to 10 teams to compete,
using different technologies to sequence the same genomes, according to Larry
Kedes, co-chair of the scientific advisory board for competition.
“It will give us a very deep insight into what systematic
errors may exist in certain technologies and why people made mistakes in the
genome sequencing,” he said. “And it will allow the genomics community to
very quickly determine what the true sequence is among the multiply sequenced
Kedes said the project should produce a near “letter
perfect” set of genomes, something that doesn’t exist today.
spent his career as an engineer at Bell Labs helping to develop telephone
communications between continents.
He said his favorite decade was the 1920s because it was a
period of rapid technological advancement and the country was thriving.
The selection of the final 100 participants only began a
few weeks ago, according to Campany. Selection of people who are the among the
world’s oldest was a critical factor for Dr. Thomas Perls, founder and
director of the New England Centenarian Study.
“Many of these subjects are what I consider living
historical treasures,” Perls said. “You
can go to a person like this and ask them what the last hundred years have been
like and they will tell.”
He has been studying centenarians since 1995 and views them
as a window into how to escape or delay age-related diseases.
“Many people say the older you get the sicker you get. I
don’t have anything to do with that,” Perls said. “But in fact, our
research has shown that among centenarians the average onset of disability is 93
years. They may have certain illnesses, but they seem able to better deal with
those than others in the general population…
“As you get to 105 and 110 years old, these people markedly compress the time that they have disability or have disease to the very end of their lives,” he added. "The X Prize is going to facilitate the start of getting into the genetics that gets at this tremendous survival advantage.
“We really need an initial push like this to get the ball rolling.”