Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a goal that’s even more ambitious than connecting the entire world to the Internet: He and his wife want to help wipe out all disease by the end of this century.
Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are committing $3 billion over the next 10 years to speed up basic scientific research, including the creation of research tools — from software to hardware to yet-undiscovered techniques — they hope will ultimately lead to scientific breakthroughs, the way the microscope and DNA sequencing have in generations past.
The goal, which they are unlikely to live to see accomplished, is to “cure, prevent or manage all disease” in the next 80 or so years. They acknowledge that this might sound a crazy, but point to how far medicine and science have come in the past century — with vaccines, statins for heart disease, chemotherapy and so on — after thousands of years with little progress.
“So if you even just assume that we’ll be able to continue to make progress on that same trajectory, then that implies that by the end of this century we will have been able to solve most of these types of things,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. He and Chan have spent the past two years speaking to scientists and other experts to plan the endeavor. He emphasized “that this isn’t something where we just read a book and decided we’re going to do.”
Through their charitable organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the commitment includes $600 million to fund a new research center in San Francisco, California, where scientific and medical researchers will work alongside engineers on long-term projects spanning years or even decades. The goal is not to focus narrowly on specific diseases, such as bone cancer or Parkinson’s disease, but rather to do basic research. One example: a cell atlas that maps out all the different types of cells in the body to help researchers create various types of drugs.
Chan’s work as a pediatrician seems to be a big driver in their couple’s decision to take up this latest cause.
“I’ve been with families where we’ve hit the limit of what’s possible through medicine and science,” Chan said.
The couple spoke with the Associated Press in their home in Palo Alto, California, where their infant daughter, Max, had just woken from a nap.
Zuckerberg and Chan hope that their effort will inspire other far-reaching efforts and collaboration in science, medicine and engineering, so that basic research is no longer relegated to the margins.
“We spend 50 times more on health care treating people who are sick than we spend on science research [to cure] diseases so that people don’t get sick in the first place,” Zuckerberg said.
Eric Lander, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, said he’s had some 20 conversations with Zuckerberg and Chan over the past year about the initiative and called their goal “the right kind of goal for thinking about that kind of time frame.” He is not involved with the project itself but expressed confidence in it.
Zuckerberg said the couple decided to focus on creating better tools because this is where they see need, based on their conversations with scientists. It will probably take years for the first tools to be developed through this initiative, and even longer before they are used to cure diseases.
Zuckerberg and Chan, who have pledged to donate 99 percent of their wealth, have spent the past two years meeting with experts to come up with the project. The two stressed that they believe that their goal can be accomplished, if not in their lifetime, then in their child’s lifetime. It was Max’s birth last November that inspired the billionaire couple to give away nearly all their money to help solve the world’s problems.