Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Seeks New Path to End Disease, Bargmann Says

Cori Bargmann of the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative lays out its ambitious mission and the path needed to accomplish it. | Mark F. Jones/CJVISIONS.COM

The goal of the philanthropic organization founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan is simply stated: an effort to leverage science and engineering “to cure, prevent or manage all disease by the end of the century.”

With that declaration, Cori Bargmann, the inaugural president of the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative, took a moment to gauge the reaction of the scientists and policy experts gathered for the 42nd AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum on March 27 at the Reagan Building in Washington. “Should I mention our humility?” she asked.

Bargmann, a neurobiologist and geneticist, had set up the audience by prefacing the goal with the listing of the values underlying Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s ambitions: “investing for the long term, listening to people in the field, consulting with and empowering the leaders of the field and humility in our approach to these new problems.”

As laughter moved through the crowd, Bargmann wasted no time defending the objective. Eight decades ago, she said, the world had no antibiotics. Evidence that high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol leads to heart disease did not exist, nor was there proof showing smoking causes lung cancer. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy were unknown.  “The end of the century is a long way away,” she said.

The goal underscores the group’s intention to advance biomedical research and build tools to propel scientific advances that will be needed. “This is not something we think we should be doing for ourselves, but rather for our children and our children’s children, and is honest about the fact that science takes a long time and that the progress we would like to make will take a long time,” added Bargmann.

Chan and Zuckerberg committed $3 billion over 10 years to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative six months ago. Since then, a research facility has been established in San Francisco to give faculty from northern California’s top academic institutions – the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Francisco and Stanford – a base to collaborate, for the first time, in an effort to address infectious diseases and design vaccines and to work on a global partnership along with federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, private organizations and foundations to identify and map an estimated 30 trillion cells in the human body in order to produce a human cell atlas.

“It’s a big problem, but it’s a new time,” said Bargmann. 

Beyond identifying the cellular occupants of the human body, the project aims to understand the groups that cells form and why. “This idea of really digging into the single cell level and figuring out how many different kinds of cells there are, where they are, how many there are, who their neighbors are, and, in the modern era, what their molecular composition is – that is something that has just become available in the past few years,” she said.

As part of the atlas project, the group is investing heavily in the development of technological tools in partnerships with U.S. and European organizations. It intends to build a cloud-based data archive that will allow scientists to add and share human cell data in the same way data were made available during with the Genome Project, opening what Bargmann called “the incredible power of sharing and excitement” about each advance.

The group is also working to build a new era search engine to harness the technological power of artificial intelligence with its machine learning and predictive powers to help surface knowledge from the approximately 3,000 papers published in biomedical journals each day. “I can’t read all of that and neither can anyone else,” she said.

To get the project off the ground, the initiative bought and brought into its group a Canadian artificial intelligence company, transforming it into a non-commercial entity to make the technology available to scientists for “knowledge discovery and sharing,” Bargmann said.

The technological effort comes in response to what scientists cited as a major impediment to quicker progress in biomedical research. Bargmann said in her own lab students spend up to half their time trying to write code.

“It’s like bad home cooking,” she quipped. “At some point you want the master chef or, at least, the high-quality takeout.”

Take lupus, for instance, the immune system disease that can spark skin rashes and eventually lead to kidney failure. Those studying it approach it with different experimental and computational methods and store their data on separate databases. “It’s not easy to compare those things to each other,” she said. “In physiology and medicine you want to be able to combine things.”

In search of ways to build science nationally and internationally, Bargmann and others also have consulted with experts across fields and identified neurodegenerative diseases and biological imaging and computation as two initial targets for global endeavors.

The enormity of the group’s effort is not lost on Bargmann, who said it will require cooperation among doctors, physicians, experimental scientists, computational scientists and partnerships and financial backing and policy support beyond that of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

An indication of the organization’s commitment to advocating for strong science policies was reflected, Bargmann noted, when the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative tapped David Plouffe, former President Obama’s 2008 campaign director, to help elevate the enterprise.

Asked about a recent congressional debate over whether Congress should require scientific research to demonstrate its findings are reproducible before they can be used as the basis for policy prescriptions, Bargmann said, “I can’t make a soufflé either but that does not mean that Julia Child should be arrested for fraud. This stuff is hard. It takes skill… We should be supportive of and celebrating skill.”

She also stressed, in response to another question, that while Chan and Zuckerberg’s $3 billion donation is a generous gift, it represents only 1% of NIH’s budget and that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s success will require leadership in the public sector as well.

“The only way to meet these goals is to build support for science at every level so that basic science research and technology are promoted at the federal level, at the international level, the private level, the public level and at the grassroots level,” she said. 

[Associated image: Mark F. Jones/CJVISIONS.COM]