- Late financier Jeffrey Epstein had plans to study people’s DNA from one of his homes in the US Virgin Islands.
- The firm overseeing the project, called Southern Trust, pulled in $US200 million in revenue, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
- Experts told Business Insider that Epstein’s genetic research plans were outlandish and far-fetched, although they contained elements based in reality.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Jeffrey Epstein received a valuable tax break on the basis of an outlandish business plan to study people’s DNA on a Caribbean island and sell the resulting data to drug manufacturers.
The venture overseeing the project, called Southern Trust, pulled in $US200 million in revenues, the New York Times reported on Friday.
Epstein, a financier and convicted sex offender, died by suicide in a Manhattan jail cell in August after federal prosecutors filed sex trafficking charges against him.
In years past, Epstein surrounded himself with scientists and other scholars, crafting plans that ranged from racist to eccentric. He once aimed to impregnate women in an attempt to seed the human race with his own DNA. On another occasion, he brought environmentally harmful species to an island in the Caribbean, prompting a warning from local officials.
One of his lesser-known plans involved sequencing people’s genomes.
The goal was to create a search engine capable of pinpointing genetic links to diseases like cancer, according to a 2012 transcript obtained by Business Insider through a public-records request. The transcript contains Epstein’s testimony before the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority, as part of an application he filed on the behalf of one of his companies, Southern Trust, for tax breaks.
“What Southern Trust will do will be basically organising mathematical algorithms so that if I want to know what my predisposition is for cancer we can now have my genes specifically sequenced,” Epstein said.
Epstein also said he was working with at least one US scientist on the project.
The science project had three main elements: First, a team of researchers would gather DNA from St. Thomas residents and use it to create catalogue of population-level genetics data. Second, the team would design a search engine that would allow them to look for links to particular diseases. Finally, they would create a “virtual laboratory” to do experiments with computer models.
Gabriel Otte, the founder and CEO of cancer genetics startup Freenome, said Epstein’s plan was far-fetched and simplistic. Two other knowledgeable sources consulted by Business Insider concurred.
“It’s like he had conversations with 10 people who knew what they were doing and said, ‘I’m going to create a company that does all of these things,'” Otte told Business Insider.
‘None of these ideas are unique. And none of them are practical.’
Elements of Epstein’s plan have links to reality.
The idea of sequencing people’s DNA, analysing it, and selling the insights to drug companies is well-known to companies in the space, for example.
Last year, personal genetics company 23andMe signed a $US300 million deal last year to sell de-identified batches of genetic data to drug giant GlaxoSmithKline; Calico, Google’s life-extension spinoff, once teamed up with genealogy and DNA site Ancestry to study the genetics of longevity.
“None of these ideas are unique,” Otte said. “And none of them are practical.”
Companies like 23andMe look at genetic mutations that raise the risk of developing cancer. 23andMe’s health test, for example, provides a glimpse at some of the well-known mutations tied to breast cancer.
A related but separate concept involves studying the genetics of cancer tumours.
Freenome, Otte’s company, uses a blood test to look at the DNA inside cancer tumours. The goal is to reveal new targets for the next generation of cancer treatments.
Epstein appeared not to understand the distinction between the two.
“What he is describing is not within the realm of possibilities today, and probably not for at least 500 years. It’s clear that he didn’t have a deep understanding of any of the science behind this,” Otte said.
Epstein seemingly knew that his ideas sounded far-fetched. At one point during the testimony, he told the commissioners, “I am not a mad man.”
‘It’s the Frankenstein version but it’s true, yes’
While discussing the science that his new venture would involve, Epstein rambled, sometimes exploring tangents that appeared unrelated to the project.
When asked how the setup might work, he answered: “It’s the Frankenstein version but it’s true, yes. In fact it will turn out that certain people can learn certain things. Certain people can move through space differently.”
Epstein also compared St. Thomas to Iceland and said the island was an ideal location for DNA analysis because of its isolation.
“Places, frankly, like St. Thomas are the perfect place to sequence people because it’s so isolated. You are able to get much better data than ever before,” he said.
But experts told Business Insider that St. Thomas’ complex history, punctured with waves of immigration from the slave trade, meant that it was essentially the opposite of isolated.
Epstein had several companies that were repeatedly allowed to participate in a tax-cut program in the US Virgin Islands for local investors who spent $US100,000 or more, The New York Times reported.
His Southern Trust company applied to the program in 2012 and received approval in 2014, according to an official certificate issued by the territory’s Economic Development Authority. The approval was backdated to early 2013, when the authority held meetings to discuss the company’s application.
In an interview with the Times, the agency refused to identify the exact value of Epstein’s tax breaks. In general, however, the program offers lucrative benefits that include a 90% reduction in corporate income tax, a 100% exemption on business property tax, and the ability to rent space at “below market rates” in industrial parks located on St. Thomas. In return, Southern Trust was obligated to invest at least $US400,000.
Epstein said in the testimony that he only needed a small team of researchers to get his project off the ground. He added that he was already working with one of them: someone who hailed from Harvard and previously worked at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study.
Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak meets that description. He was photographed meeting with Epstein in 2012,BuzzFeed reported. Nowak did not respond to requests from Business Insider to be interviewed or provide comment for this story. A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment.
In 2003, Epstein gave $US6.5 million dollars to Harvard to start a new academic track called the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. It was led by Nowak, and in 2012, his researchers developed the first mathematical model showing how colon cancer cells stop responding to a type of cancer treatment, the Wall Street Journal reported.
To start his DNA sequencing project in St. Thomas, Otte believes Epstein aimed to sequence the genes of the local community.
“I get the sense that he believed the US Virgin Islands was likely to have looser guidelines around patient health data,” Otte said.
This article was initially published on September 4 and has been updated.
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