What if life insurers could help all policyholders with cancer live at least two years longer than they would have otherwise? Just imagine what that sort of breakthrough would do to how people perceive life insurance, while delivering massive gains in profitability to the insurers.
"We think that is doable, today," Greig Woodring, the longtime CEO of RGA, told me when we talked recently about the future of life insurance and, in particular, the phenomenal potential of genomics.
Woodring, who retired as CEO in 2016 after building RGA into a giant with approximately $3.5 trillion of life reinsurance in force and assets of $89 billion, was referring specifically to what's he's seen through Genetic Life, a services company he's been involved with for years. It offers a product that will pay to sequence the genome of a member's cancer to help inform precision treatment and "provide a cancer support specialist and concierge navigation services that help them get through the disease," he says. "We’ll also get our members into clinical trials at a much higher rate than they would if left to their own devices and steer them to the best cancer centers."
He says the goal is "to get to the point of helping insurance companies largely eliminate cancer among their policyholders as cause of death. And right now, for most of them it’s a leading cause of death; underwriters don’t screen out cancers as well as they do, for example, cardiovascular deaths. You’ll be able to tell your policyholder base that, look, we’ll help you increase your health lifespan, at least partially, as best we can. This is a good message for a life insurance company."
But understanding cancers more precisely and attacking them more effectively is really just the start of what we covered in the interview (whose full text you can read here). The backdrop is that the cost of sequencing a genome is plummeting, so it is becoming ever easier and cheaper to understand the genetic code of, well, everything.
While it took 13 years and billions of dollars to sequence the first human genome, finished in 2003, sequencing now costs less than $1,000 and can be done in hours. A $100 price point is in sight, based on devices under development now, and attachments are already available that let you sequence a genome using an app on your smartphone.
Combine that sort of understanding of the genetic code with the developments in the delivery of mRNA into the body that allowed for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, and you can perhaps see the way to vaccines for cancers and many other diseases.
Artificial intelligence is speeding the progress of medicine, and at an accelerating rate. AI is, for instance, letting scientists see how proteins fold, which determines how they interact with each other. Determining how a single protein folded had until recently been too complex a problem for computers to solve and had required a complex chemical process that relied on a special type of X-ray produced by a synchrotron the size of a football stadium. The process could take a year and cost $120,000. But, in a development I wrote about here, Google's DeepMind research arm used AI to solve the problem in late 2020 and now, within hours, can determine a protein's folded shape more accurately than that elaborate chemical process. With the omicron variant of COVID, scientists knew from the genome what the virus looked like well before anyone could put it under an electron microscope.
AI will also help scientists and doctors understand how to use CRISPR, the near-magical gene-editing tool, to treat diseases by manipulating an individual's genome -- without causing all sorts of unintended consequences.
If it seems that I'm getting worked up about the potential of genomics here, it's because I am. I recently published a book with two colleagues that goes into detail on how genomics will deliver nearly unlimited possibilities by 2050, so I've been stewing in genomics for years as we worked on the book.
If you're interested in learning more on the subject than I've been able to cram into this short space, you can read an excerpt from the book here. (The excerpt includes the introduction and a chapter on climate change; the genomics material starts on p. 35.) If you're interested in our vision for how genomics can play out, in combination with technologies in the other six areas (computing, communication, information, energy, water and transportation) where we see nearly limitless bounty by 2050 at near-zero cost, check out the book website.
Add up all the progress, and Woodring says:
"Many researchers believe, and are intensively investing money and effort, in the pursuit to extend the maximum human lifespan beyond the 100-year or 115-year mark to maybe 120 to 150. But who wants to live to 150 unless they’re healthy? So, life insurers may be well-positioned to extend the 'healthspan' of their policyholders. Life insurers should be concerned about the health of their policyholders more actively."
Sign me up.