On September 21, Facebook CEO and billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, and his pediatrician wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced a new, privately funded big science effort. The couple pledged more than $3 billion toward a plan to “cure, prevent or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime.”
The couple has pledged to donate over $3 billion over the next 10 years to fund the development of new transformational research tools and support basic science research with the aim of finding cures for various diseases. The announcement came after consulting with dozens of top scientific researchers and luminaries over the past two years, and will be led by Rockefeller University neurobiologist, Cornelia Bargmann, who was also co-chair of President Obama’s Brain Initiative.
The first portion of the Chan Zuckerberg funding directs $600 million for the creation of the “Biohub” research center in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, proximal to the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus and its neighborhood of biopharma companies and biotech incubators. The new center is expected to be up and running relatively quickly, as they will be moving into existing, recently built space formerly occupied by Illumina, according to STAT News.
Led by Stephen Quake, the Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering and professor of applied physics at Stanford and UCSF biochemist & infectious disease specialist Joseph De Risi, the new research center will bring together researchers and engineers from those schools and from the University of California, Berkeley to work on key research and tools including:
- The creation of a cell atlas that provides a molecular profile of all human cell types and brings together what is known about cell: cell interactions;
- A way to continuously monitor blood for early signs of illness;
- A chip that can diagnose all — or at least many — diseases.
A second focus gaining initial funding is an infectious disease initiative aimed at the development of new diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines for currently untreatable diseases, especially tropical ones.
Dr. Di Risi says, “A lot of the high-capital infrastructure that we’ll be installing at the Biohub will be broadly available to the UCSF, UC Berkeley, and Stanford communities in much the same manner as the technology already available at the Center for Advanced Technologies here at Mission Bay….It’s likely to be both high-throughput, genome-wide robotic systems for CRISPR-based screening technology, as well as single-cell sequencing technologies, and other ways of assessing large-scale data collection from cellular assays. We really hope to be fully running with our core facilities in 2017.”
Rather than directing most of the efforts towards specific cures, the initiative is taking a long view and will fund basic research that addresses fundamental biological questions that may provide a foundation for future medical research. Moreover, collaboration and openness will be a priority. Results of efforts like the cell atlas will be made available to researchers worldwide and funding will be directed for the establishment of as 15 virtual institutes that bring together investigators from around the world to focus on individual areas of biological study or research goals. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative echoes themes discussed by Vice-President Joe Biden at ASCO and the Cancer Moonshot program, namely around collaboration, openness and the use of novel technology for furthering science and medicine.
Many of the recent big life science initiatives have been focused primarily at the transformational and clinical research levels. We believe this longer-view approach and investment in basic research will provide a critical foundation for further advancement. Moreover, by bringing engineering, digital and information technology, and artificial intelligence into the mix, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative should enable a new generation of tools to continue to drive biological research forward. And while the overall effort may not have significant short-term impact on health care and investment in new treatments, investments in such advanced “picks and shovels” is likely to drive the next generation of major medical advances.