Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, began to tear up before a crowd in San Francisco on Wednesday as she recounted her experience treating children struggling with chronic diseases.
She said she recalled thinking: What else could she have done for them?
Chan and Zuckerberg announced Wednesday they would seek to answer that question by committing $3 billion over the next decade to try to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century — an audacious goal and the latest effort by Silicon Valley philanthropists to help advance medical science.
The couple said their new philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, will attempt to bring scientists and engineers together, invent new technologies, and encourage the funding of basic science.
“It doesn’t mean that no one will get sick,” Zuckerberg said. The goal, he said, would be to ensure that people get sick less often, or be able to better manage their diseases.
The effort will include a $600 million project to establish a cooperative known as the Biohub, involving scientists and engineers at the University of California, San Francisco, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, Chan and Zuckerberg said.
The Biohub’s first two projects are already planned. One will be the development of a “cell atlas” of the human body to characterize all cell types in the human body and to detail interactions within each cell. The other will be an infectious disease initiative aimed at developing new drugs, diagnostic tests, and vaccines against diseases that are still prevalent in many parts of the world, such as HIV, Ebola, and Zika.
“The funding seems to fill a gap,” said Dr. Jonathan Lim, CEO of Ignyta, a San Diego cancer drug and diagnostics company. “They’re tackling basic science and prevention, which tend to be relatively less well-funded areas, compared to translational and clinical efforts.”
Lim called the initiative a “lofty ambition” and an “incredibly strong statement” of commitment to investing in concrete projects with the potential to combat diseses. “I’m just a big fan of moving the needle for patients,” he said.
Cori Bargmann, a Rockefeller University geneticist tapped by Chan and Zuckerberg to lead the effort, said the couple’s mission seemed “heart-stopping” in its scope. But she also said that long time horizon gives scientists leeway.
“We can look at projects that will pay off in 20 years or 50 years,” Bargmann said. “To me, that is what makes the Chan Zuckerberg initiative feasible.”
Chan and Zuckerberg established their new initiative in December and said it would focus on health, education, scientific research, and energy. The couple said they would donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares — worth $45 billion at the time — to the new initiative.
They join several other billionaires who have put big money behind public health goals.
Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster, has committed $250 million to develop new cancer treatments. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading a coalition of philanthropists putting up $100 million for a separate cancer initiative. And philanthropist and entrepreneur Paul Allen committed $100 million in March to an initiative that backs risky, cutting-edge science that more conventional funders might avoid.
Billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch have also given tens of millions to cancer research.
And Bill Gates funds public health projects around the world, including malaria and polio prevention efforts, through his charitable foundation.
At the end of Wednesday’s event, Gates came on stage to offer his support to Zuckerberg and Chan.
He said the new project was “very bold and very ambitious,” but that he couldn’t think of a better pair to tackle such an ambitious goal.
“We’ll all be proud to say that we were here when Mark and Priscilla started this journey,” he said.
Meghana Keshavan contributed to this report.