Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Takes Dual Approach to End Disease

Scientist Cori Bargmann leads the science work of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which aims to support science through basic biomedical research. | Professional Images Photography

To meet its ambitious goal of “curing, preventing or managing all diseases by the end of the century,” the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative is crafting its own new tools and technologies along with funding top scientists, the Initiative’s inaugural president of science said at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist and geneticist at Rockefeller University, said the Institute founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan is an unusual “hybrid” in the world of philanthropy because it will spend its $3 billion, ten-year endowment to provide financial support to others while simultaneously  conducting its own research.

If the end of the century seems too soon to see disease disappear, Bargmann reminded her audience that discoveries in the past century to transform lives over a similar span. For instance, cancer treatment went from a surgery-only approach in the 1930s to a variety of therapies that have led to “a systematic 1% to 2% decrease in cancer deaths each year for the past 25 years,” she said.

With this progress in mind, the Institute is not “making a statement of arrogance but rather a statement of respect for the kinds of advances that have happened in medicine in the past 80 years as the result of science,” said Bargmann.

She offered several examples in her plenary address of how the Institute is pursuing its hybrid approach. The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, for instance, is funding 50 top researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley to collaborate in a rented Bay area lab to identify new infectious disease agents. At the same time, a team of Biohub engineers is working alongside the scientists to develop new software platforms to analyze the data they collect.

In the case of the Human Cell Atlas, a global effort to identify the body’s 30 trillion cells, the Initiative is providing funding to help scientists carry out their cell mapping projects, but it also has hired a team to develop a data coordination platform so that the atlas of participants can collaborate and pool data more efficiently.

One goal of the Initiative, Bargmann said, is to bring the expertise of commercial software design to bear on scientific tools like the atlas. “Because right now the technology that’s used to sell you stuff you don’t need is more sophisticated than the technology your doctor is using to diagnose disorders and the technology that scientists are using to handle the data we generate,” she noted.

In the realm of scientific publishing, the Institute funds the continued development of bioRxiv, a preprint server that allows researchers to share their biology papers with each other before publication. But they are also working on a platform called Meta that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help scientists zero in on the data they need from the 1 million science publications that appear each year.

The Institute has a commitment to making its tools open source and open access, Bargmann said, to encourage widespread research collaboration. “We know from our colleagues … that if you have a database that requires some sort of authentication or special permission to get access, that data is used 100 to 1000-fold less than a fully open database,” she said.

After Bargmann’s address, AAAS President Susan Hockfield presented the 2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science to Johanna Varner and the 2018 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award to Michael E. Mann.

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