Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen is donating $100 million of his fortune to launch what he calls an “industrial-scale” effort to understand the basic building block of all living things: the cell.
The funds will go to the creation of a new institute based in Seattle that will construct a comprehensive visual database and predictive model of different types of cells, from cancer-ridden ones to neurons -- an effort that Allen said he hopes will help accelerate research into medical treatments and cures around the world.
In a phone interview prior to the announcement of the gift on Monday, Allen said that there has been much research in recent years on genes and how they influence disease, but there is a gap in knowledge of the intermediate step: How do those genes influence the composition, shape and functioning of cells – the smallest units of life with the ability to replicate independently -- and how do those variations affect disease?
"Cells are fundamental to every known human disease... If you can get a better understanding of how those cell processes come into focus that can give you further insight into normal cell functioning and disease states that everyone wants to attack,” Allen said.
Allen said that while someone who is well-versed in computer science has a pretty good sense of the internal workings of a computer, that's impossible for biological systems. "There is just so much happening that you have to model it to really understand it," he said.
The new cell research center will be led by Rick Horwitz, a former University of Virginia associate vice president for research, and will bring together biologists, microscopy experts, data scientists and others from a diverse set of fields under one roof. It will start with a group of around 20 scientists but has plans to hire up to 70 within the first three years.
The Allen Institute for Cell Science will initially focus on what are known as induced pluripotent stem or IPS cells. These cells, which are derived directly from adult tissue, are special because they are believed to have the ability to transform themselves into any other cell type in the body. IPS cells hold tremendous promise for drug discovery and regenerative medicine but while they have become a popular subject of study by scientists in recent years, there’s a lot we still don’t know about how they work.
The institute plans to start by creating computational models of the transition of IPS cells into heart muscle and epithelial cells that make up skin and line the inside of cavities in the human body. About 90 percent of cancers are believed to be related to issues with epithelial cells.
Horwitz, a cell biology professor who helped launch the University of Virginia's big data initiative, described a cell as "a system of molecular machines -- many, many machines and each of these machines is really complicated."
"People have studied individual systems but no one has tried to integrate it. It’s a huge project. It takes a multi-disciplinary team," he said.
With its “big science” approach, the new institute aims to replicate the success of another, more established philanthropic endeavor by Allen to reverse engineer the brain.
Founded in 2003, the Allen Institute for Brain Science was initially met with some skepticism and many questioned whether its mission – to map the mouse brain – was the right one. But now, 11 years later, the institute’s mouse brain atlas and human brain atlas are widely praised as some of the most critical work in the history of neuroscience and have been cited in hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles.
Allen’s initial investment of $100 milion in the brain institute has grown to $500 million and the institute is in the process of more than doubling its staff to 350 over the next few years.
Among the main reasons the brain institute is believed to be so successful is that it has made its findings free and openly available to the public. Horwitz said the new institute will do the same and hopes to be able to share "edited" cells for study, reagents it used to manipulate them, images that will tell the visual story of how the cells change at different stages and predictive models that can start to guess how cells might react to certain stimuli.
The latter goal is key, Horwiz said, to being able to develop tailored therapies for patients.
"If you look at cancer there are a tremendous number of genes turned on or off or mutated. This is also true for autism. What we don't know is which ones are important and which ones are not. The important ones are the ones that actually change how the cell grows and once we have a better understanding of how this works we'll have a much better idea of which potential targets for new drugs," he said.
Over the past decade, Allen, who is estimated to be worth $15.8 billion according to Forbes, has emerged as one of the most influential philanthropists in the field of biomedicine. He is one of nearly 130 billionaires who have signed The Giving Pledge, promising to give more than half his wealth away to charity. Earlier this year, Allen pledged $100 million to battle Ebola – a contribution that U.S. officials say has been critical to getting emergency operations centers up and running in west Africa.
Bruce Alberts, who was part of a group of about 15 scientists who participated in a brainstorming meeting about cell biology with Allen earlier this year, said he believes the work it will be doing will bring us “many surprises that makes us realize how little we really understand about the basic mechanisms by which cells operate.”
Alberts, a biochemistry professor at the University of California-San Francisco who served two terms as president of the National Academy of Sciences, said that in recent years the private sector has become critical to reversing the trend of reduced government investment in basic science.
“These longer-term kinds of investments tend to be neglected because everyone wants short-term outputs in this world of politics. So I am very pleased Paul Allen has a different vision,” Alberts said.