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The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative

So there’s another big tech-comes-to-cure-disease story, the announcement that Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are starting a $3 billion dollar initiative in biomedical research. After saying what I did yesterday about Microsoft’s cancer treatment efforts, I might be expected to have similarly caustic words for this one. But after looking it over, I don’t. There’s some hubris, but it’s not at Microsoft levels – no talk of five or ten years to eradicate things that have been defeating the best scientists in the business for decades, for example, and no blithe assertions that it’s just code, for which debugging is a “solved problem”.

Chan and Zuckerberg had already announced that they were going to donate the great bulk of their money to causes like this, and yesterday’s story was the first detailed look at what they’re up to. $600 million of the money is going to establish a new cooperative effort (the “Biohub”) between UCSF, Cal-Berkeley, and Stanford, and their first projects are (1) to come up with a detailed census of all the cell types in the body and to bring together what’s known about cell-cell interactions, and (2) an infectious disease initiative aimed at new diagnostics, drug therapies, and vaccines against currently untreatable diseases (specifically, it seems, tropical ones).

I think that these are perfectly good things to be spending money on – half blue-sky tool project and half applied and therapy-directed. The Cell Atlas is the sort of project that I think that private funding like this can do well, and I appreciate that it’s going to be an open resource for researchers around the world. I realize that this has the opportunity to be quite useful, as well as the opportunity to be a nebulous waste of money, and I very much hope that it’s the first, of course. As for the second part, $600 million is not going to be enough to produce a whole list of new drugs for infectious disease, but it can clear out a substantial amount of brush in the area, with any luck. Clinical trials in that area can be logistically difficult, due to conditions in some of the areas of the world you’re trying to treat, but scientifically, the path is a lot more clear than in many other diseases areas (you have a much better handle on the patients you should be treating, and the clinical endpoints are clean and relatively quick).

As for the rest of the money, there were a lot of headlines about “cure all diseases”, which does make you wrinkle your nose, but a closer look shows that it’s not as insane as that makes it sound. The language is to “prevent, cure, or manage” diseases, and the timeline is stated to be 100 years, which makes a lot more sense than Microsoft curing cancers in five. If we can keep our act together as a civilization, there’s no telling what biomedical science – or any science – will look like in a hundred years. Zuckerberg is quoted as saying “We have to be patient. This is hard stuff.” and I like that a lot more than Microsoft’s pronouncements the other day. Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller, who’s been named as president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as a whole, is also quoted as saying “. . .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 I’m fine with that, too. I hope that this work ends up doing things that individual grants wouldn’t be able to accomplish (or even see approved), while not going off into the vague clouds of outreach, facilitation, and all those other things that eat up money without necessarily returning much of anything.

Since we’re talking money, it’s been noted in many of the stories about this work that the $3 billion involved here is not very large compared to the NIH’s $31 billion budget (and the amount spent by commercial drug companies is much larger than that). But the idea, I hope, is not to compete or duplicate those efforts, but rather to do things that those aren’t in a position to do (and to give each of them something new to work with, in the end). It’s true that others are working on things like tropical-disease vaccines, but the more different well-funded lines of attack, the better. Combining everything into One Big Effort is, in medicine, something that actually increases the chance of failure, from what I can tell.

We’ll see how things turn out in reality, but so far I definitely like this more than some of the glitzier, high-PR events that have happened in this space, and more than some of the technohubristic ones that make me want to spit on the floor. Good luck to Chan and Zuckerberg, and I hope that it turns out that they’ve spent their money well.

Update: here’s Wavefunction on the rise in private science funding, which he also sees as a good thing.

32 comments on “The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative”

  1. steve says:

    I don’t think it matters where the funding comes from – if Google, Microsoft, Thiel, Zuckerberg or anyone else wants to enter the fray with their own money and try to bring new perspectives they should be welcomed. It doesn’t really matter if their ideas are hubris and flawed, they’ll eventually begin to generate real data and that can only help the cause, which is to find new ways to help patients in need. We need to be aware of our own hubris in decrying these efforts because we know how hard drug development is. Maybe some naivete is needed to kick our butts and make us see how to do things in a different way.

    1. CH says:

      “It doesn’t really matter if their ideas are hubris and flawed, they’ll eventually begin to generate real data and that can only help the cause”

      I agree these things shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand; however, if the ideas are flawed, I’m not sure they will generate real data. I think they might generate flawed data, which can be wasteful.

      1. steve says:

        I haven’t seen anything that says that the science won’t be rigorous; after all, we’re talking about a consortium of scientists at Stanford, UC Berkeley and UCSF. The idea that people who made billions in software can’t put together effective efforts in medical research is a form of hubris itself. I don’t see any evidence that software engineers eschew rigor.

    2. dvizard says:

      “I don’t think it matters where the funding comes from – if Google, Microsoft, Thiel, Zuckerberg or anyone else wants to enter the fray with their own money and try to bring new perspectives they should be welcomed. ”
      Yes and no. As noted below, I’d rather see Zuckerberg’s $3b, or Microsofts $XY jillions invested into projects than zero. But then again, I’d rather see $3b, or Microsoft’s money, invested in a project I find productive and useful, rather than dumped into the trashcan. So to me it matters what the money is used for. Not necessarily where it comes from.

      1. steve says:

        The problem is that they are trying to redefine what you and I would call productive. I think it’s worth a try. How many people who read this blog would have backed Barry Marshall’s crazy idea that ulcers were caused by bacteria? Or, better yet, how many pharma companies nowadays would develop metformin when the mechanism of action is a complete unknown? As far as I’m concerned, if they want to use their money to try and think out of the box with regard to medical discovery, more power to them. They’ll come up with something and it might even be better than whatever we come would come up with using the same funds. Worse comes to worst they’ll invigorate the industry and end up employing people who’ll spin off new companies.

  2. Barry says:

    I don’t think the disease targets for Chan Zuckerberg are areas that Drug Companies “are not in a position to pursue”. They’re disease areas in which the market incentive fails. Huge advances in basic anti-viral therapy were made to address e.g. HIV and HCV because it was perceived that these affected large numbers of well-insured people who could pay for the treatment and thus reimburse the R&D. That hasn’t been so for TB which still perceived to be an affliction of the poor and the foreign.
    The other huge failing of the market incentives is novel antibiotics. The world desperately need novel antibiotics and the known ones are increasingly ineffectual. But our FDA would want to restrict a new drug to only the most resistant cases, which is not a large enough indication to remunerate the R&D. Meanwhile, a pirate lab (in India? in China?) would start making and selling it in violation of the patent, and it would be used too broadly, so there would still probably be resistance cultivated in pathogens.
    These are fundamental failings of the market-drive Drug Discovery enterprise that a Chan Zuckerberg initiative can address, at least in part.

    1. loupgarous says:

      I’m hoping for a paradigm shift away from antibiotics to generically more competent immune systems – perhaps we’d have the same sort of “arms race” we now have between microbes and man, where evolutionary mechamisms in the simpler and faster-reproducing microbes will always give us microbes that defeat each new generation of antibiotics and every tweak we make to our immune systems.

      It takes h. sapiens roughly 13-17 years between generations (teenage pregnancies cluster somewhere in that range). Bacteria, protozoans and viruses have us whipped – even if we stopped using antibiotics to make livestock grow, the plasmid transfer game will go on and on. Wonder if that’s one of their “blue sky” targets – breaking plasmid transfer so that it pays to make novel antibiotics.

      1. Dr. Manhatten says:

        “I’m hoping for a paradigm shift away from antibiotics to generically more competent immune systems – perhaps we’d have the same sort of “arms race” we now have between microbes and man, where evolutionary mechamisms in the simpler and faster-reproducing microbes will always give us microbes that defeat each new generation of antibiotics and every tweak we make to our immune systems.”

        The people who need those antibiotics the most are people in ICUs, cancer units and transplant units, with often severely compromised immune systems. They also are at the greatest risk from MDR pathogens. I agree that better vaccines and deeper understanding of the immune system (which is highly regulated and seriously complex) will be an enormous benefit, but antibiotics will still have a major role to play.

  3. Christophe Verlinde says:

    It would be wise for this new initiative to coordinate with the Allen Institute for Cell Science, which was created in Dec. 2014, to prevent duplication. See:
    http://www.alleninstitute.org/what-we-do/cell-science/

  4. myma says:

    Thank you, Derek, for actually reading and summarizing their new initiative. It actually sounds like there could be something a bit more in there than wishful thinking. I had yesterday only rolled my eyes at the “cure every disease, everywhere” headline and moved on.

  5. adam says:

    The difference is, Mark Zuckerberg actually has some computer science training and understands that the further you get from applied math, the less likely you are to be able to solve a problem by writing code. Microsoft’s press releases yesterday were clearly written by the marketing department rather than the people who are actually going to be spending the money and doing the work.

  6. dvizard says:

    “Since we’re talking money, it’s been noted in many of the stories about this work that the $3 billion involved here is not very large compared to the NIH’s $31 billion budget”

    Isn’t this like complaining that you won a million dollar because that isn’t enough for a personal airplane? I’d rather see $3b invested into biomedical research than, you know, zero,

  7. loupgarous says:

    Ken Alibek (b. Kanatjan Alibekov), former deputy director of Biopreparat also says (from his perspective as a former bioweaponeer) the trick to surviving “new diseases” (be they bioweapons or emerging viruses) is to get the body in better shape to deal with generic biological threats, not immunize against everything and anything.

    Now that it’s clear that “cure all diseases” wasn’t “Orgone Therapy: Part II”, I’m cautiously optimistic, too. We’re still using the results from real “blue-sky” stuff in aviation; now that we have the basic set of tools we’ll need, perhaps the 21st century can be to biology and medicine what physics and engineering were in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m even cautiously hoping there’s a “Moore’s Law” in store (at least in preclinical work).

  8. Gareth Wilson says:

    This actually seems to have the opposite problem, in that it’s not optimistic enough about what we can do in 100 years.

  9. Anon says:

    Isn’t it easier and cheaper to “live longer” by having children and dying sooner?

    1. TX raven says:

      Yes… If you believe in reincarnation…

  10. hn says:

    I think we would benefit from wider distribution of funds to support diverse approaches than concentration into super labs.

  11. SedatedFMS says:

    So I’m the only one then that is extremely cynical about both the motives behind and the ability to deliver? Oh well.

  12. SPQR says:

    As usual the biology competence will come from the current “elite” of biomedical research (Stanford, Berkeley).

    Does anybody else not think that in order to get new ideas and shift paradigms one should diversify aggressively? How do you expect people to think outside of the box if you always interrogate the same people?

    1. SedatedFMS says:

      It reads, sounds and looks like they will be funding systems biology and biofinformatics. But that’s not new, it’s not exactly ground breaking stuff anymore (and no I am not dissing systems biology and bioinformatics). From my understanding the NIH, various universities and private enterprise have done a pretty reasonable job in bringing biologists, engineers and programmers together to try and map out various different illnesses over the last 10-15 years. I suppose fresh eyes etc but it doesn’t even sound like it will be that. Maybe it’s just me, with a Grand Canyon sized chip on my shoulder but I see no small amount of hubris in the whole enterprise. I would love to be wrong.

      1. Dr. Manhatten says:

        It will be a fresh initiative and having more people with varied backgrounds involved is certainly a huge plus. Cori Bargmann (Rockefeller University neuroscientist) will have a big role in this, and she is a superb choice. Think of this as a west coast version of the Broad Institute. I expect to see a lot of basic information and new technology emerging from this endeavor.

      2. SPQR says:

        I will be venturing a little bit into the philosophical here, so please excuse me.

        The idea of throwing more resources at something will not lead to any kind of paradigm shift. I like to think that cancer research gives us more insight into the phenomenon than targets and molecular mechanisms, I think we should also learn from the system’s behavior and tendencies. Cancer does not invest in ivory towers and elites. Cancer functions the way it does due to massive diversification followed by non-directed selection. Cancer research on the other hand is increasingly exclusive and subject to dogma and ideology. I think we should learn from the disease and copy it, but unfortunately, that would require neglecting big egos and the self-esteem of the current establishment.

        The word “hubris” is being used a lot in these discussions, but the real hubris is the fact that powerful people are pushing and shoving to have an exclusive place on the forefront of cancer research, as if the goal were so close that its just a matter of standing together with the victors when victory inevitably happens. Cancer is natural selection unleashed on our cellular hierarchies. Our cells organize into tissues with a prototypical architecture and keep the ancient mechanisms of proliferation and selection in check for the limited amount of time that is required for such a rate of organism reproduction that the population grows. This is all that is required and this is what is provided by big momma nature. Cancer is therefore not a “bug”, the system is working marvelously when you consider the degree of order that is being maintained. It is hubris to assume that the system is somehow fucked up just because we would like to live longer.

        I also would like to rid the world of the scourge that cancer is, but it will be quite a journey towards that goal and I think we really need to get some perspective on what kind of a beast we are working against here. To “solve cancer” is to obtain dominion over nothing less than evolution of living systems, the same process that governs antibiotic growth and resistance, pest growth and resistance and even the natural diversity of life in general (including ourselves). It would be a kind of power that would make nuclear weapons pale in comparison.

        1. Phil says:

          “Cancer does not invest in ivory towers and elites.”

          So, you want Zuckerberg to keep his money for himself then?

          1. Anon says:

            You know, if he did, how much tax would be received by the US and state governments?

          2. Phil says:

            You know, if they did collect more taxes, the money would be spent as/more wisely?

        2. hubris says:

          We should invest in camps, with basic utilities and supplies, and breed uncontrollably. The world’s population will multiply at unprecedented rates. All humankind will toil fields, eat, sleep and work together to drive the population upwards. Evolution will be the only force to guide our fate.

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