Engineering The Perfect Human? Biotech Examines Rare DNA In Himalayan People

Variant Bio has spent the last several years scouring the world for genetic outliers in human beings. It found a small group of "outlier humans" with special variations in their DNA that could affect disease risk and eventually be used to develop medicines to improve human life. 

Founded in New York, the 10-person startup's lead geneticist Stephane Castel is focusing on the DNA of Sherpa people living at high altitudes in Nepal and Himalayas. Their unique genetic characteristics allow them to live healthy lives with blood oxygen levels far below what most humans need. Most people in high altitudes suffer from hypoxia, which is the absence of enough oxygen in the tissues to sustain bodily functions. 

"They [Sherpa people] don't suffer any ill health effects," Castel told Bloomberg. "It's incredible." 

Sherpa village 

Castel's team is betting on the sequencing of Sherpa DNA, which could lead to discoveries of new superior traits that would aid in the development of novel medicines and therapies to improve metabolism, eyesight, and immune response.

It's up to Variant's software and scientific analysis to find breakthrough genetic coding in Sherpa DNA, Castel said it could take several years to develop drugs and therapies based on the results. 

Sherpa man

Variant Bio recently received a capital infusion from venture firm Lux Capital for $16 million to pursue the research. 

Josh Wolfe, the co-founder of Lux Capital, said:

 "Wouldn't it be amazing if some secrets of human health were possessed by these small groups of people [Sherpa people], and they could ultimately benefit the rest of the world?," Wolfe said. 

Variant's new CEO, Andrew Farnum, previously managed the $2 billion investment arm of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that concentrated on  global health and infectious diseases. 

"There are huge advantages here for drug discovery," Farnum said while referring to Variant's research. 

 "People will see how seriously we take this and how we conduct our projects, and other populations will want to work with us," he said. 

Variant has held talks with Sherpa village leaders and Nepal's research council to negotiate deals for DNA extraction with locals. 

Keolu Fox, a genome scientist and an assistant professor at the University of California at San Diego, said Variant must compensate Sherpa people for their DNA:

"If the people don't get a cut, this is colonial," Fox said. "It's extractive capitalism." 

Variant has taken the approach that human genetics has the power to transform drug development. Perhaps, the startup is on to something by examining superior genes possed by Sherpa people. 

Could this company be in the early innings of engineering perfect humans?