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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Health

Malaysian billionaire backs RM230mil 'fountain of youth' research

Posted: 05 Mar 2014 12:25 AM PST

US scientist behind the mapping of the human genome is now looking to uncover the secrets of aging and among his financial backers is Genting's chief executive.

Craig Venter, the scientist who raced the US government to map the human genome over a decade ago and created synthetic life in 2010, is now on a quest to treat age-related disease.

Venter, 67, has teamed up with stem cell pioneer Dr Robert Hariri and X Prize Foundation founder Dr Peter Diamandis to form Human Longevity Inc, a company that will use both genomics and stem cell therapies to find treatments that allow aging adults to stay healthy and functional for as long as possible.

"We're creating the largest data set of its kind, ever," Venter said in an interview in his offices at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, where he and his co-founders gathered after announcing the new venture on Tuesday.

Venter said the hope is to make new discoveries that promote longevity and help prevent diseases that accompany aging.

The startup company has US$70mil (RM230mil) in private backing and has already purchased two ultrafast HiSeq X Ten gene sequencing systems from Illumina Inc, a leading manufacturer of DNA sequencing machines, with the option to buy three more.

The company will use that technology to map 40,000 human genomes a year in a push to build the world's largest database of human genetic variation. The database will include sequences from the very young through the very old, both diseased and healthy.

Dr Eric Topol, Scripps Health chief academic officer and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, called the venture "a big, audacious initiative and just the kind we need to make substantive progress in the field."

Venter's push into longevity follows the formation in September of biotechnology company Calico, which is backed by Google Inc.

"Undoubtedly, important biologic discoveries will be made along the way, but it remains unclear whether such efforts like Human Longevity Inc and Calico can influence longevity," Topol said.

Diamandis, a serial entrepreneur and the company's vice chairman, acknowledged that the quest for longevity has been taken up by many, going as far back as 1513 with Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of youth.

What makes the timing of the new venture compelling, he said, is that it comes in a period of "rapid, exponential growth" for a host of new technologies. 

He cited dramatic declines in the cost of genome sequencing, explosive growth in bandwidth, and the advent of cloud computing and machine learning technologies, all of which will be needed to make use of the vast amounts of data the group intends to collect.

In addition to gathering whole genome sequences, the company will gather genetic data on the trillions of microbes – including bacteria, viruses and fungi – living in and on humans.

By better understanding the microbiomes in the gut, in the mouth, on the skin and other sites on the body, the company said it hopes to develop better probiotics as well as better diagnostics and drugs to improve health and wellness.

Along with the microbiome data, Human Longevity Inc or HLI will collect data on the metabolome – the various metabolites, biochemicals and fats in the body – in order to get a better picture of the circulating chemicals that contribute to health and affect how drugs work.

The company's initial treatment targets will be some of the toughest age-related diseases: cancer, diabetes and obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.

Dr Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute delivers testimony during a hearing on "Developments in Synthetic Genomics and Implications for Health and Energy" by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington in May 2010. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.

Venter said the company will start first with cancer. It has teamed up with the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego, with the goal of sequencing the genomes of everyone who comes there for treatment, currently about 4,000 to 5,000 patients a year, as well as doing a full genome sequence on their tumors.

"Cancer is one of the most actionable areas right now with genomic-based therapies," Venter said, adding that cancer is just the starting point.

"We're not just focusing on disease," he said. Rather, he sees the database has a means of getting concrete answers to the question of nature versus nurture.

"From your genome, we will know everything about who your ancestors were genetically, what you got from them, your type of memory, your type of fundamental metabolism, even whether you are an optimist or a pessimist," he said.

"A lot of these things are genetic traits that aren't just nice things to know. They are also predictive of medical outcomes."

But the venture is not just a science experiment. Venter envisions the database the company builds will be attractive to a host of potential clients, ranging from researchers and drug companies to insurance companies.

Although he declined to name any potential drug company partners, Venter said already there have been "lots of interested parties talking to us."

In addition to UCSD, the company has established strategic collaborations with privately held Metabolon Inc of North Carolina, a company that focuses on biochemical profiling, as well as his own J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit genomics research institute.

Chairman and chief executive of Genting Malaysia Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay at the launch of the Twentieh Century Fox World and Genting Integrated Tourism Plan in Genting Highlands in Dec 2013. Starpix/Norafifi Ehsan.

Venter said the first round of funding should last about 18 months. Initial backers include Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chairman and chief executive of Malaysian multinational Genting Corp, and Illumina. – Reuters

Fatty fish boosts good cholesterol levels

Posted: 04 Mar 2014 06:10 PM PST

Three or four fish meals per week found to improve HDL.

A UNIVERSITY of Eastern Finland study has found that eating more fatty fish can increase good cholesterol levels.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE and found participants who increased their fish fatty consumption to three or four fish meals per week had more large HDL (high-density lipoprotein) – also known as "good cholesterol" – particles in their blood than those who did not eat fish so frequently.

For the study, 131 participants with "impaired glucose metabolism and features of the metabolic syndrome" were divided into three groups, the first asked to eat wholegrain products and bilberries as well as three to four weekly servings of fatty fish, the second asked to eat whole grains in addition to their regular eating habits, and the third, a control group, asked to eliminate whole grains and limit their intake of berries and fish. A total of 106 participants completed the trial.

Daily fish intake in the three groups worked out to be 67g, 42g and 16g respectively. Participants who experienced the most positive changes were those eating three to four fish meals per week, and the greater the increase in fish intake, the greater the increase in concentration of large HDL.

Fish consumed for the study included fatty options such as rainbow trout, salmon, vendace and herring. The fish were prepared without additional butter or cream.

Cholesterol is generally divided into "good" and "bad," with good cholesterol capable of removing bad cholesterol from arteries in addition to lowering risk of cardiovascular disease. Bad cholesterol contributes to increased risk of this disease.

"People shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that if their standard lipid levels are OK, there's no need to think about the diet, as things are a lot more complicated than that. Soft vegetable fats and fish are something to prefer in any case," postdoctoral researcher Maria Lankinen says.

Researchers also emphasize the importance of maintaining a heart-healthy diet that's low in red meat and high in fish and other foods that lower bad cholesterol, such as olive oil, whole grains and nuts. – AFP Relaxnews

A more fit workplace

Posted: 01 Mar 2014 08:00 AM PST

The best place to start reversing the world's ever-expanding waistline is in the workplace.

NEARLY all of us need to make more time for fitness. Finding that time, though, can seem impossible.

But what if you could wedge that workout in at work? If it sounds far-fetched (or a great way to get yourself fired), listen up.

Dr James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic, United States, says we don't need to log more time at a gym.

Instead, we need to banish sedentary ways by incorporating easy bursts of activity from dawn to dusk.

He calls it NEAT fitness, which stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

In layman's terms, it means cranking up the body's calorie-burning abilities by weaving in near-constant movement – such as standing, walking, even pacing – at every opportunity.

Becoming a body in motion that stays in motion could help you burn 500 or more extra calories a day.

Combine that with smart food choices, and we could be well on our way to reversing the world's ever-expanding waistline.

And Dr Levine said he believes the best place to start is in the workplace.

If you're rolling your eyes, you might be guilty of what Dr Levine calls "1930s thinking, to see employees (and the workplace) as merely tools of productivity".

But "the really cool companies" – Google, Yahoo, Apple – "take the health and the happiness of their employees seriously," Dr Levine said.

It's not just for altruistic reasons, of course.

It's easier to keep health costs in line when employees are healthier, and a healthier workforce is a more productive workforce, he said.

"A healthy workplace is the way of the future."

Such a future might resemble the San Clemente, California, headquarters of Stance, an upscale sock company that tailors its line to Southern California's snow, skate and surf culture.

Chief executive Jeff Kearl says the four-year-old company has spent more than US$100,000 (RM320,000) on employee perks, such as a basketball court, a skateboard half-pipe, game tables and showers.

A chef prepares healthful breakfasts and lunches. (On a recent Friday, employees rolled in to an array of freshly blended juices and homemade yoghurt. Lunch revolved around a crunchy kale salad.)

A gym, personal trainers and classes are coming shortly.

And it's not unusual for employees to clear out and head for the beach (just up the street) when the waves are just right.

"It may be hard for people to believe, but we have zero abuse," said Kearl, whose office runs by a "freedom and accountability" philosophy that loosely translates as: Just get your work done, OK?

Not every company is run like Kearl's, or will hire the likes of a Dr Levine to revamp their culture and facilities to make health and fitness a priority.

So we asked Dr Levine to help us come up with some ideas to try now. For free.

We realise all these ideas won't work for you.

But maybe a third of them will. And that would help you meet the US Department of Health and Human Services recommendation that adults get at least 150 minutes a week of "moderate-intensity exercise" – the equivalent of walking at a pace of 20 minutes per mile.

Alternative office furniture to avoid sitting at a desk all day

Is it time for a standing desk?

To be honest, there is debate about whether a standing desk – in and of itself – can help reverse a sedentary lifestyle. But experts say it's a step in the right direction.

At the very least, a standing desk can serve as a constant reminder to weave more activity into our everyday lives, said Dr Levine.

Before you spend a penny, why not just find an empty box or milk crate and turn it upside down? Look for opportunities to use it as a perch to review notes, talk on the phone, sort mail, etc.

Sit only when you need to focus on your computer screen. This experiment will help spark your own creative solutions to a more healthful workstation and help you decide whether one of the following might suit your needs:

1. Got a treadmill acting like a clothes hanger in your spare bedroom?

Then you could be halfway to a walking desk. Yes, a walking desk – a desk that wraps around a treadmill – is the hot new corner office accessory.

One model on the market is the TrekDesk, an adjustable-height U-shaped desk that curves across the front of your treadmill, leaving space for a laptop, an inbox, a phone and more. Yes, there are cup holders.

Stroll along at a gentle pace – up to 3.2km an hour – while working. Or stand still when you need to focus.

Price: US$479 (RM1,532).

2. In all likelihood, you'll want a workstation that allows you to stand and sit.

UpLift has an extensive line of desks in a variety of sizes, prices and designs that come with a motor that will allow you to easily switch back and forth.

One we like is the UpLift 900, priced at US$769 (RM2,460).

3. Money is no object? Check out the Elliptical Machine Office Desk at Hammacher Schlemmer. It's – gulp – US$8,000 (RM25,600).

It's spacious enough to include an area for just standing.

Granted, this is probably more than you want to spend. But it could inspire you to supplement your home office with a piece of exercise equipment.

4. There's always a DIY approach: If you've got the space, you could use a small coffee table or stool perched atop your existing work area.

Or grab a reclaimed cabinet or armoire and set it alongside a traditional desk to give you the best of both worlds.

Or just stick with your milk crate! (Just remember that if you are in earthquake country, you want to make sure your setup is secure.) – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


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