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.