From Facebook to curing all disease: The $600m Biohub backed by Mark Zuckerberg

The philanthropic organisation set up by the Facebook CEO and his wife, paediatric doctor Priscilla Chan, is investing $600m in researching big biomedical questions.

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Biohub's main areas of research will include infectious disease and cell biology.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic brainchild of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, launched last year with a big fanfare, a bigger budget, and an aim that was bigger still. In December, it was revealed that the pair would route some 99 percent of their joint shares, currently worth tens of billions of dollars, to the initiative, which is tasked with "advancing human potential and promoting equality".

Just how the organisation, set up as a limited liability company, would work on those twin aims -- and spend $3bn -- became clearer this September, when the couple announced Chan Zuckerberg Science, an equally ambitious project whose aim is curing human disease within the century.

It's an aim that puts most moonshoots to shame, but the project has already made the first investment that it hopes will take it nearer to that goal: a dedicated $600m health research institution in the Bay Area. And, as befits a project backed by a man that made his fortune from a social networking site, technology will be at its heart.

Dr Robert Tjian, a UC-Berkeley professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and structural biology and former head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, served as an advisor on the creation of Biohub.

"We started to talk maybe a year and a half ago, and at that time it was unclear what direction [Zuckerberg] should be going in, and he reached out to a number of other scientific advisors.

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"The first really important thing we settled on was one shouldn't just spend the money on clinical studies, but rather dig into the fundamental human biology. It was a very difficult decision -- there's a lot of urgency in trying to deal with diseases that are killing people, but you can't really do that, you can't get to the translational side until you understand the mechanisms of disease... Mark and Priscilla came to the conclusion it was better to put their efforts into a broad spectrum of basic discovery efforts as well as clinical work," he told ZDNet.

Biohub will bring together the three biggest universities in the area -- UC-Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF -- into a single facility to work on some of the big biomedical questions that still dog human disease.

"They felt having a physical institute near where they were -- they didn't want this to be some remote site somewhere, they wanted themselves to be engaged in it -- they decided there should be a hub in San Francisco, which is equidistant between Stanford and Berkeley and equally accessible to all institutions. It was a truly brilliant aspect of what they were thinking -- they are in the Bay Area where there are three truly exceptional organisations, and why should they choose one or two, why not involve all of them? They've managed to do that in a way I think no other organisation has managed to do," Tjian said.

With a mission statement as broad as "curing all human disease" in the lifetime of the children born this year, where will Biohub's scientists even begin?

Biohub will have tens of 'investigatorships' up for grabs, either for biomedical or other researchers that are already at the university, or for those from outside institutions.

There are two main threads to the centre's research so far: looking at infectious diseases and genetic conditions.

'Infectious diseases' itself is an equally broad term, covering thousands of illnesses responsible for millions of deaths each year. The Biohub website namechecks a handful of them -- SARS, Ebola, Zika, TB -- but the four areas of infectious disease research could be applied to far more.

Biohub will look at how to improve the diagnosis of such conditions, work on developing new drugs to fight them, research vaccines that could prevent their spread, and form a 'rapid response team' for use in disease outbreaks, that can use technology like genome sequencing to work out the mechanisms that diseases use to attack and colonise the human body.

The Cell Atlas, meanwhile, aims to probe and catalogue the tiniest building blocks of the human body, as well as research the possibilities -- and pitfalls -- of editing them.

Given the enormity of Biohub's brief, it's perhaps no surprise that it has a similarly enormous timescale for its research -- rather than months or years, Biohub's projects will be able to span decades of work.

"Mark and Priscilla have truly exceeded anyone's expectations: they said 'we realise this is a hard thing to do and we're very keen on making a true impact, let's make it a very, very long timeline... we can watch this thing happen for the next 50 to 80 years'," Tjian said.

Biohub will also allow scientists to pursue riskier, or more tangential, research that would otherwise not be funded by universities.

While Biohub isn't specifically a tech effort, technology runs through both the infectious diseases and cell atlas part of its work. Improving genome sequencing, for example, would help the rapid response team identify the makeup of diseases that haven't been seen before, while machine learning could be put to work on probing clinical trial data to improve vaccines.

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"They're interested in setting up technological platforms that will push the science forward... Mark's an engineer, so he really sees the engineering side and obviously the computational side, perhaps the machine learning side, could be a tremendous additional weapon to help biologists interpret the very large datasets we're generating now.

"I'm sure there will be engineers in other forms, like making mechanical devices or cell culture equipment, certainly chemistry and physics are involved -- you're talking about new microscopes, or X-ray machines, that's all engineering," Tjian said.

Health and technology are not the only disciplines that could potential be housed at Biohub, ethics and philosophy might have a place, too.

"I do believe their vision cuts across multiple disciplines. It might even go further than that, it might involve law or other fields in the university -- they have a broad view of things. Take a technology like CRISPR Cas9, where you have the ability to manipulate the human germ line. There's huge ethical issues. That's the advantage of [Biohub] being embedded in these universities -- they have the capacity to deal with social issues," Tjian added.

The CZI has been criticised for its limited liability nature, which as well as allowing it to take part in lobbying and make political donations, means it can be run for profit. While Biohub might ultimately end up giving rise to startups, thanks to its research, that isn't its ultimate aim.

"Any work that the CZI funds has to be published and made rapidly available to the public -- they're not operating like any private for-profit, in fact quite the opposite. They're saying 'we want our discoveries to empower others to do other discoveries'.

"The Bay Area has an incredibly entrepreneurial culture, so I would be shocked if there weren't small companies that would derive from research coming from Biohub, or UCSF, Berkeley, and Stanford. They do that extremely well but it's never interfered with the dissemination of the scientific information."

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