Epigenetics Holds Promise of a New Way to Create Life Insurance

Epigenetics Holds Promise of a New Way to Create Life Insurance

Written by: Brian Chen, PhD, MPH

Most people have heard of genetics. It has received a lot of attention, especially since the race to sequence the first human genome first began. The ongoing discussion on the use of genetic testing for life insurance has re-emerged in recent months. But what about epigenetics? First of all, what is it? And how does it differ from genetics, particularly in the context of life insurance?

Genetics is the study of your genes, the blueprint for life – eye color, hair color, facial features, etc. Your genetics are inherited from your parents and are hardwired. This part of the field has been under study since Gregor Mendel first took note of differences in traits of peas in 1866, even before James Watson and Francis Crick published their seminal work on the structure of DNA in 1953.

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the completion of the first draft of the human genome, it’s become clear that genetic sequencing has not wiped disease off the planet, in the news conference held to announce the first draft was completed in June of 2000. Don’t get me wrong. Science would not have progressed to where it currently is without the Human Genome Project, but the fact remains that the scourge of  cardiovascular disease and cancer still dominate as the leading causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In a totally separate line of thinking, some people noticed that  every cell in your body has the identical genetic code – that’s why a cheek swab is sufficient to sequence one’s genome – yet one’s liver cells and brain cells look and function differently. How is that possible if genetics is the end-all? Many scientists saw these facts long ago and began to look beyond the genetic sequence.

Epigenetics is one direction in which scientists have looked. The term “epi” literally translates into “above” or “beyond.” In a nutshell, epigenetics is an umbrella term for chemical groups that attach to DNA, RNA, and proteins to alter how genes are expressed, as far as we know now. Your body has layers of regulation and redundancies to keep you physiologically “normal,” and epigenetics is one of those important layers that regulate which genes get turned on or off and at the right time. Imagine what would happen if all the genes in the body were turned on all the time!


Research has shown that epigenetics plays an important role in normal biological function. In addition, it serves as a conduit through which environmental stimuli (e.g., life events or dietary exposures) translate into a language that your cells can understand and react to on a molecular level. More important, because it has direct applicability to business practice, epigenetics can be used to estimate one’s “biological age.”

Related: NAIC Sees Life Insurance as a Viable Solution to Long-Term Care Costs

What is “biological age,” exactly? It’s ill-defined, but we know that we all age at different rates. Some 60 year olds have the physiology of 40 year olds, while other 60 year olds may be on their deathbeds. Chronological age gets us part of the way, but something is going on in the human body that may be able to better explain why some die earlier or later (or remain healthier) than others.

In 2013, Dr. Steve Horvath at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) demonstrated that powerful statistical models can take epigenetic data, specifically DNA methylation, and estimate one’s biological age. While others have correlated levels of certain molecules in blood to chronological age, to my knowledge, nobody had directly estimated it, especially from molecules attached to DNA, rather than free-floating molecules in blood. We then sought to determine whether this estimated age was capturing biological age, at least in part. And, to the extent that being associated with different rates of mortality suggests biological aging, we found that “epigenetic aging” was associated with mortality.

What does this mean for industry? Currently, epigenetics cannot be edited like genetic sequences can, so targeted interventions are not yet a possibility. However, predicting mortality can be useful in the life insurance industry. Additional areas that have recently emerged include consumer wellness products using the epigenetic clock and cancer screening using blood samples. The latter has emerged as a powerful new approach that could only be done using epigenetics, and not genetics, as has been done for several decades. The hope is that not only can early signs of cancer be detected, but we’d also be able to read which tissue the cancer is in. This may provide a bounty for healthcare, insurance, and testing companies.

It's so early in this game and many more technologies and research findings will emerge. But with both science and technology moving at a breakneck speed, it is key for businesses to find ways to keep up.

Dr. Brian Chen is chief science officer of Life Epigenetics, a wholly owned subsidiary of GWG Holdings. Dr. Chen was first author of the study on DNA methylation and mortality prediction building on Dr. Steve Horvath’s work at UCLA that was published in the journal Aging in September 2016.  
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GWG Holdings, Inc. (Nasdaq:GWGH) the parent company of GWG Life, is a financial services company committed to transforming the life insurance industry through disruptive and i ... Click for full bio

China's Push Toward Excellence Delivers a Global Robotics Investment Opportunity

China's Push Toward Excellence Delivers a Global Robotics Investment Opportunity

Written by: Jeremie Capron

China is on a mission to change its reputation from a manufacturer of cheap, mass-produced goods to a world leader in high quality manufacturing. If that surprises you, you’re not the only one.

For decades, China has been synonymous with the word cheap. But times are changing, and much of that change is reliant on the adoption of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, or RAAI (pronounced “ray”). For investors, this shift is driving a major opportunity to capture growth and returns rooted in China’s rapidly increasing demand for RAAI technologies.

You may have heard of ‘Made in China 2025,’ the strategy announced in 2015 by the central government aimed at remaking its industrial sector into a global leader in high-technology products and advanced manufacturing techniques. Unlike some public relations announcements, this one is much more than just a marketing tagline. Heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, the program is focused on generating major investments in automated manufacturing processes, also referred to as Industry 4.0 technologies, in an effort to drive a massive transformation across every sector of manufacturing. The program aims to overhaul the infrastructure of China’s manufacturing industry by not only driving down costs, but also—and perhaps most importantly—by improving the quality of everything it manufactures, from textiles to automobiles to electronic components.

Already, China has become what is arguably the most exciting robotics market in the world. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2016 alone, more than 87,000 robots were sold in the country, representing a year-over-year increase of 27%, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Last month’s World Robot Conference 2017 in Beijing brought together nearly 300 artificial intelligence (AI) specialists and representatives of over 150 robotics enterprises, making it one of the world’s largest robotics-focused conference in the world to date. That’s quite a transition for a country that wasn’t even on the map in the area of robotics only a decade ago.

As impressive as that may be, what’s even more exciting for anyone with an eye on the robotics industry is the fact that this growth represents only a tiny fraction of the potential for robotics penetration across China’s manufacturing facilities—and for investors in the companies that are delivering or are poised to deliver on the promise of RAAI-driven manufacturing advancements.

Despite its commitment to leverage the power of robotics, automation and AI to meet its aggressive ‘Made in China 2025’ goals, at the moment China has only 1 robot in place for every 250 manufacturing workers. Compare that to countries like Germany and Japan, where manufacturers utilize an average of one robot for every 30 human workers. Even if China were simply trying to catch up to other countries’ use of robotics, those numbers would signal immense near-term growth. But China is on a mission to do much more than achieve the status quo. The result? According to a recent report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), in 2019 as much as 40% of the worldwide market volume of industrial robots could be sold in China alone.

To understand how the country can support such grand growth, just take a look at where and why robotics is being applied today. While the automotive sector has historically been the largest buyer of robots, China’s strategy reaches far and wide to include a wide variety of future-oriented manufacturing processes and industries.

Related: Smooth Tomorrow's Market Volatility With a Smart Approach to Robotics & AI

Electronics is a key example. In fact, the electrical and electronics industry surpassed the automotive industry as the top buyer of robotics in 2016, with sales up 75% to almost 30,000 units. Assemblers such as Foxconn rely on thousands of workers to assemble today’s new iPhones. Until recently, the assembly of these highly delicate components required a level of human dexterity that robots simply could not match, as well as human vision to help ensure accuracy and quality. But recent advancements in robotics are changing all that. Industrial robots already have the ability to handle many of the miniature components in today’s smart phones. Very soon, these robots are expected to have the skills to bolster the human workforce, significantly increasing manufacturing capacity. Newer, more dexterous industrial robots are expected to significantly reduce human error during the assembly process of even the most fragile components, including the recently announced OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens that Samsung and Apple introduced on their latest mobile devices including the iPhone X. Advancements in computer vision are transforming how critical quality checks are performed on these and many other electronic devices. All of these innovations are coming together at just the right time for a country that is striving to create the world’s most advanced manufacturing climate.

Clearly, China’s trajectory in the area of RAAI is in hyper drive. For investors who are seeking a tool to leverage this opportunity in an intelligent and perhaps unexpected way, the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index may help. The ROBO Index already offers a vast exposure to China’s potential growth due to the depth and breadth of the robotics and automation supply chain. As China continues to improve its manufacturing processes to meet its 2025 initiative, every supplier across China’s far-reaching supply chains will benefit. Wherever they are located, suppliers of RAAI-related components—reduction gears, sensors, linear motion systems, controllers, and so much more—are bracing for spikes in demand as China pushes to turn its dream into a reality.

Today, around 13% of the revenues generated by the ROBO Global Index members are driven by China’s investments in robotics and automation. Tomorrow? It’s hard to say. But one thing is for certain: China’s commitment to improving the quality and cost-efficiency of its manufacturing facilities is showing no signs of slowing down—and its reliance on robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence is vital to its success.

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