Written by: Jon Sabes
Predicting an individual’s lifespan has been the exclusive province of the life insurance industry. In September 2015, I met with Dr. Steve Horvath, a world renowned scientist on aging at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who had discovered new methods of measuring biological aging using the science of epigenetics. After that meeting I became convinced that epigenetics could be applied to the life insurance industry to improve mortality underwriting. Little did I know then that the science of epigenetics held promise to transform the future of a global industry.
In 2013, Dr. Horvath published his landmark paper, “The Epigenetic Clock,” which demonstrated that epigenetics can be used to estimate biological aging. In late 2016, an international effort led by Dr. Horvath established that a new epigenetic clock could be used to “predict all-cause mortality above and beyond chronological age and traditional risk factors.” The meta-analysis study involved more than 13,000 people that were followed for decades and included over 2,700 mortalities. In May of 2017, we exclusively licensed from UCLA to use Dr. Horvath’s epigenetic technology in life insurance and related industries. We call this technology our M-Panel All-Cause Mortality Test, after the methylation panels used in the Horvath study.
Since that time, we have been actively working to expand the use of epigenetic science to better predict a variety of traditional life insurance underwriting factors. In sum, we believe we are on the cusp of being able to underwrite life insurance more accurately, with more consistency, and at lower costs than the traditional methods used by the life insurance industry for decades.
Our phased development plan begins by developing scientific capabilities to commercial the technology, Life Epigenetics, Inc., and bringing the benefits of our technology directly to consumers through a digital managing general agency called YouSurance.com. We have solutions for those individuals who know they are healthy, who don’t suffer from “smoking amnesia” and who don’t drink alcohol excessively.
We believe YouSurance can offer an unparalleled value proposition to consumers who maintain excellent health and wellness. Our goal is to work with insurance carriers to understand our advanced technology and underwriting methods, so our consumers obtain the best-priced life insurance available in the marketplace. We expect our value proposition to appeal to consumers who are technologically savvy, forward-thinking, open-minded, and in the market for life insurance.
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YouSurance puts the consumer first by allowing consumers to self-select into the best risk pool using the most advanced technology. Insurance carriers who work with us will have access to the best risk pool available in the marketplace, allowing those savings to be passed on to our customers. The idea that we can create the best risk pools available in the marketplace is a powerful one.
Our technology is based on epigenetic science and is evolving life insurance underwriting well beyond the realms previously thought possible by looking at and evaluating molecular signatures occurring along the epigenome.
Epigenetic science is the study of how gene expression changes through the addition or removal of biochemical markers rather than alterations in the genetic DNA code itself. Unlike the genome, which basically stays the same throughout a person’s lifetime, the epigenome changes dramatically based on age, behavior and other environmental factors. This means that the epigenome is reacting to the fact that someone may smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, or run marathons, for example.
By measuring unique biochemical signatures along the epigenome, we can underwrite the traditional factors that life insurance companies have long sought to measure with greater accuracy and precision. And what is really exciting is that we are going beyond traditional underwriting factors to understand human lifespan at a molecular level. Our technology includes:
- Our patent-pending M-Panel Smoking Test is a game changer for the life insurance industry. The current gold standard for smoking status measures cotinine collected from blood or urine. The half-life of cotinine in the human body makes it easy for smokers to appear as non-smokers after just one day of not smoking. Contrast that with our patent-pending M-Panel Smoking Test that analyzes molecular methylation patterns in saliva to identify smoking. Our M-Panel Smoking Test will place individuals into four different smoking categories: current smokers, recent quitters, long-term quitters, and never smokers. In addition to these four classifications, the M-Panel Smoking Test may be able to estimate the amount of cigarettes an individual has smoked. Both the amount and the duration an individual has smoked over a lifetime plays a dramatic role in determining the individual’s mortality risk.
- Our patent-pending M-Panel Alcohol Test provides new useful insights into individual health. Excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to lead to higher mortality rates. Today, quantification of alcohol consumption for life insurance underwriting is mostly limited to self-reporting. Current biomarkers used to detect excessive alcohol consumption have limitations that include their cost and accuracy. We believe there is a great need for a test that integrates information across self-reporting and epigenetic biomarkers. Our M-Panel Alcohol Test is based on scientific research that identifies specific methylation signatures for different drinking patterns. Our M-Panel Alcohol Test will identify three types of alcohol consumption patterns from a saliva sample: heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers, and light/non-drinkers.
- Our patent-pending All-Cause Mortality Test opens up a new factor in life insurance underwriting itself and provides individual actuarial mortality factors based on the methylation patterns found in the epigenome. The science behind our all-cause M-Panel Mortality Test suggests that it provides a new important independent factor about an individual’s risk of mortality. In many ways, our All-Cause Mortality Test provides new insights into individual wellness and the effects of environmental factors we are exposed to over our lives. Individuals working with YouSurance will receive a “Longevity Report” that includes the results from our All-Cause Mortality that reveals epigenetic age, or biological age. Curious customers discover how their epigenetic age determines if their biological aging is slower, faster or average compared to others with the same chronological age.
While our M-Panel technology is scientifically verified, the science of epigenetics is still nascent. As a result, we anticipate our M-Panel technology to evolve rapidly in a way that adds material value over time. As more and more lives are underwritten, we will have more data to further refine our technology and enhance its underwriting benefit.
Life insurance underwriting is transforming due to advancements in science and technology. We believe epigenetics is the foundational science informing this advancement. Epigenetics promises to improve many traditional underwriting factors with greater accuracy and precision, and may also open up new factors in underwriting itself.
We foresee the day when our epigenetic technology will replace a range of other underwriting factors to make our tests an even more complete replacement for current medical underwriting practices. We also expect that the costs and time required to process these new tests will continue to fall due to technological advances, economies of scale and process improvements. The anticipated strengthening of these core benefits gives us confidence that epigenetic testing will become an integral part of the life insurance underwriting process and that we will lead this transformation.
Knowledge is power, and as science increases our ability to impact the future of life insurance, we plan to stay relevant by bringing unique and smart information to keep the future filled with a cycle of success.
We believe that the science of human lifespan does not begin and end in the underwriting department of a life insurance company. We believe knowledge belongs in the hands of the consumer where informed choices, in conjunction with wise financial planning, make for rewarding connections.
Jon Sabes is Chief Executive Officer of YouSurance, an insurtech subsidiary of GWG Holdings, Inc. (Nasdaq:GWGH).
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