Nelson Dellis has won the U.S. memory championship four times. He once memorized the sequence of a pack of cards in just over 40 seconds, and it took him just 15 minutes to master over 200 names.
Considering how many people struggle with memory loss due to age and disease, there’s naturally a lot of interest in knowing how Dellis’ brain works. Veritas Genetics, a biotechnology start-up, just got approval to sequence the 34-year-old memory athlete’s entire genetic code.
Veritas, located north of Boston, is among a handful of emerging companies providing the tools for humans to map their genome at a price, $1,000 each, that almost brings it into the mainstream. When Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, had his DNA sequenced while battling pancreatic cancer in 2011, it cost him $100,000.
But in addition to selling kits to consumers who want to dive deep into their biological code, Veritas is doing research into people like Dellis to try and understand how and why extraordinary people are different. Prior to Dellis, Veritas has worked with former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski, who completed five space shuttle flights before retiring (he’s now a Veritas advisor), and the world famous free diver William Trubridge, who can descend more than 330 feet into the ocean on a single breath.
Veritas is reaching the edges of human experience in other ways. It also wants to be the first to provide a whole genome sequencing test to newborn babies, and it is building the largest data set of genomes for the oldest of the old.
“I think studying these extreme cases is a really interesting approach,” said Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a consultant to Veritas. “In some ways, the notion of extremes is so fundamental to what we have learned and ever learned about in medicine.”
The company doesn’t know what it will learn, but that’s the nature of this kind of research. Scientists in the past decade uncovered two women with very low LDL cholesterol levels, who turned out to have the identical double dose of an extremely rare gene mutation. That discovery set off a chase among the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to get approval for a drug that imitates the effect of that mutation.