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Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 billion effort aims to rid world of major diseases by end of century

Pricilla Chan (R) and her husband Mark Zuckerberg announce the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to "cure, prevent or manage all disease" by the end of the century during a news conference at UCSF Mission Bay in San Francisco. (REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach)
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Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on Wednesday announced a $3 billion effort to accelerate scientific research with the wildly ambitious goal of “curing all disease in our children’s lifetime.”

The many components of the initiative include creating universal technology "tools" based on both traditional science and engineering on which all researchers can build, including a map of all cell types, a way to continuously monitor blood for early signs of illness, and a chip that can diagnose all diseases (or at least many of them). The money will also help fund what they referred to as 10 to 15 “virtual institutes” that will bring together investigators from around the world to focus on individual diseases or other goals — an idea that has the potential to upend biomedical science.

Being a scientist in academia today can often be a solitary endeavor as the system is set up to encourage colleagues to keep data exclusive in the hopes that this strategy helps them be more competitive at getting publications and grants. But as more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg are seeking to make their mark in the biological sciences, they are emphasizing the power of collaboration and openness.

A centerpiece of the new effort, called Chan Zuckerberg Science, involves creating a “Biohub” at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Mission Bay campus that will bring together scientists from Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and UCSF.

Zuckerberg and Chan, among the world's 10 wealthiest couples, with a net worth of $55.2 billion, emphasized that their timeline is long — by the end of the century.

"We have to be patient. This is hard stuff," Zuckerberg said.

Chan said, "That doesn’t mean no one will ever get sick, but it means our children and their children should get sick a lot less."

Many of themes articulated by Zuckerberg and Chan on Wednesday in San Francisco echo ideas furthered by other technology philanthropists who have donated substantial amounts of money to medical science. Sean Parker, a Napster co-founder, earlier this year set up a multi-center, $250 million effort to bring together top researchers from around the country to focus on immunotherapy for cancer. Microsoft's Paul Allen has already invested $100 million in a cell-biology institute to try to create models of the fundamental building blocks of life.

It was unclear how those efforts would collaborate with Chan Zuckerberg Science, if at all.

The announcement marked a public debut of a sort for Chan, whom Zuckerberg referred to as having guided him to the project. While many people may have jumped onto the Facebook live stream to hear Zuckerberg, it was Chan, a pediatrician, who stole she show.

She was first and last on stage — and in sharp contrast to the robotic presentations typically given at such announcements — she was moved to tears when talking about the soul-searching that led to the project.

Chan cried when recounting what it was like to tell a parent that a child has the devastating diagnosis of leukemia or tell a family that doctors had not been able to resuscitate their child.

“In those moments and at many others, we are at the limit of what we understand about the human body and disease … the limit of our ability to alleviate suffering. We want to push back that boundary,” Chan said.

Chan, who met Zuckerberg when they were students at Harvard and married him in 2012, is among the most private of Silicon Valley's billionaire spouses. Even as her husband became one of the most famous and influential people on the planet over the past decade, she shunned media appearances, launch events, and other public and social engagements.

Instead, she continued along the often-grueling career path of becoming a doctor that she probably would have followed if the two had never crossed paths. Chan finished her medical degree in 2012, put in her hours as a resident at UCSF and then became a pediatrician at a public hospital, San Francisco General, where she still works.

During those years, the couple began to ramp up their philanthropy with a mix of traditional grants -- $5 million to UCSF Children’s Hospital, $75 million for San Francisco General Hospital, $25 million to the CDC Foundation to fight Ebola — along with a few less-conventional projects.

Chan and Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to reform the struggling Newark school system was characterized by journalist Dale Russakoff in the New Yorker and in a more detailed book as being full of good intentions but as ultimately being "squandered" by local politicians' mismanagement. The couple subsequently gave a similar donation -- $120 million — to improve schools in the San Francisco Bay area and said that they looked at the failures in New Jersey as a learning opportunity.

The world got its first glimpse of Chan's thinking as separate from her husband's last year, when she announced an innovative project to open a new type of school for children in the diverse and poor city of East Palo Alto, Calif., which is on the other side of Highway 101 from where she and her husband own a home. Chan said Wednesday that the school, which opened in August, is serving 100 students.

Chan, who serves as chief executive of the school, imagined it to be a place that combines first-rate teaching with access to health-care services for children in elementary school. In a rare interview, Chan told a local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, how her volunteer work tutoring disadvantaged children while at Harvard influenced not only the project  but also her life and career.

“I realized that my homework help was going to completely be futile if these kids couldn’t be healthy, safe and happy in the place that they lived,” she said.

In December 2015, the couple stepped out into the philanthropic world in a big way — pledging an estimated $45 billion to do good in the world, making their already substantial donations look paltry. They called the effort the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, rather than the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative, which appeared to foreshadow a more public role for Chan in the coming years.

She has company among the spouses of Silicon Valley billionaires. Melinda Gates is now as well known as Microsoft's Bill Gates for her work with global and women's health issues. Cari Tuna, a former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and wife of another Facebook co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, has taken the lead on the couple's philanthropy. And Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs of Apple, has recently started to make inroads with efforts in education as well as global conservation and immigration policy.

This year, Chan, who rarely posted publicly in years past on her Facebook page (she has 1.7 million followers compared with her husband's 80 million),  began sharing pictures and short descriptions of her philanthropic work and travel. Her timeline features her meeting with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter (they talked about what "we can do to connect and improve the health and well-being of the most underserved individuals across the globe"), Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (she said she was "inspired" by his "message of hope and creating social change through innovation and technology") and Pope Francis (they have a "shared mission of reaching and serving all of those in need").

She and her husband also posted an adorable Happy Lunar New Year video of the two of them holding their daughter and speaking Mandarin.

[More on Silicon Valley philanthropy:

Peter Thiel, eBay co-founder, on his quest to find the key to eternal life

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, author and wife of Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, on reinventing charity

Sean Parker, Napster co-founder, on curing allergies]

The announcement of the couple's ambitions in philanthropy came about in an unusual way — as a 2,234-word open letter to their daughter, Max, that outlined their commitment to giving away 99 percent of their Facebook shares to "advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation."

While they did not cite specific projects, they outlined how advances in medical science could play a role:

Today, most people die from five things — heart disease, cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative and infectious diseases — and we can make faster progress on these and other problems.
Once we recognize that your generation and your children's generation may not have to suffer from disease, we collectively have a responsibility to tilt our investments a bit more towards the future to make this reality. Your mother and I want to do our part.

The way they set up the vehicle through which they would fund their philanthropy — a limited liability company called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative rather than a traditional nonprofit foundation — was controversial. Doing so allows them to donate to political organizations or for-profit entities, gifts that would not be allowed under rules for charities. It is also not subject to the same disclosure requirements and oversight. Zuckerberg defended the structure by saying that it would give the couple the "flexibility to execute our mission more effectively."

In formulating their plan for Chan Zuckerberg Science, the couple said they consulted with numerous scientists and philanthropists, including Gates, who appeared on stage Wednesday to praise the couple’s “risk-taking,” and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, whom Zuckerberg credited with pushing them to view the problem through the lens of computer science.

The new effort will be led by Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University who was co-chair of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, and is expected to eventually include thousands of researchers throughout the world. Bargmann said in an interview that the list of target projects is still being worked out but that one major effort will involve infectious diseases.

“Anyone reading about Zika or Ebola knows it is a major unmet need,” she said. Bargmann said she hopes other efforts will focuses on brain issues such as autism and Alzheimer’s. She said that “the reason we haven’t spelled out a lot is that we want to get more input from the scientific community to make really wise decisions and it only makes sense that we’re starting with that now that the project is out in the open.”

This post has been updated.

Read more:

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$250 million, 300 scientists and 40 labs: Sean Parker’s revolutionary project to ‘solve’ cancer

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Paul Allen’s $500 million quest to dissect the mind and code a new one from scratch

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