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he Facebook founder and his physician-wife’s $3 billion commitment for research to cure and prevent disease, announced Wednesday by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, will stand out from other medical philanthropies by cross-pollinating diverse fields and taking a long view — aiming to solve tough medical problems over generations — the project’s scientific leader said in an interview.

“What’s unique here is the combination of engineering and biology” to solve long-range problems, said Cori Bargmann, the Rockefeller University neuroscientist who heads the scientific projects underwritten by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

That philosophy will set it apart from other major efforts in life sciences, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds her own work, Bargmann said. Howard Hughes also funds bold innovators looking at fundamental biomedical questions, but the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will prioritize a full integration of engineering and data science fields that are becoming central to biosciences research, she said.

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Bargmann spoke Wednesday after Chan and Zuckerberg introduced the first scientific grant of the program, a $600 million, 10-year cooperative effort, dubbed the Biohub, that will combine scientists and engineers at the University of California, San Francisco, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

Bargmann said this kicks off a series of efforts, to be rolled out in coming months, to look at life science challenges that could take anywhere from a few years to more than 70 years to overcome — a time horizon that differs sharply from the near-term focus of some other Silicon Valley philanthropists.

The effort will “put physician scientists, basic scientists, and engineers together to solve problems in a big way,” she said. That’s something experts in the Bay Area — home to Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley’s tech innovators, as well academic life sciences titans — are well-positioned to accomplish, Bargmann said.

Digital technology and artificial intelligence are “not nearly deeply enough integrated into biology the way we do it today. There’s a grass roots, bottom-up need to take our work there up a level,” she said, through better data analysis and artificial intelligence software.

Joe DeRisi
Joe DeRisi, holding up a gene chip that contains 20,000 snippets of genetic material from every known virus, in his office in San Francisco in 2006. Paul Sakuma/AP

Joe DeRisi, professor and chair of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, will codirect the Biohub effort.

DeRisi told STAT he would recruit faculty from the three university partners for multiyear commitments, luring them with large, well-equipped lab space at UCSF’s massive new campus in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco. This process can move quickly, DeRisi said, because the Biohub will occupy newly built labs being vacated by the biotech firm Illumina.

DeRisi said the project will underwrite “the best, riskiest, most innovative work,” including exploratory efforts that might not be attractive to traditional funders, and to “fund people, not just projects.”

He called the Howard Hughes model, which gives innovative life scientists freedom to explore, one inspiration. Biohub will build on that approach by making data scientists and electrical engineers integral partners who will build custom technology tools to move research ahead more rapidly.

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Two initial projects for Biohub — so far described only in broad strokes — will be a “cell atlas,” to identify all cell types in the body to support a better understanding of how they operate, and an infectious disease project meant to detect, identify, and develop treatments for new microbial threats such as Zika, and to support drug discovery and vaccine development.

Another recently announced private initiative, former Facebook executive Sean Parker’s $250 million grant for cancer immunotherapy research, also plans to merge engineering and medicine. But that effort is more tightly focused on promising therapies with near-term prospects of success.

The Chan Zuckerberg effort, in contrast, will emphasize “problems that are going to take a long time to solve,” Bargmann said.

“We need to study things we don’t understand at all … biomedical problems for which we can define some questions, but we don’t know how to look for the answers,” she said.

Bargmann compared the new effort to placing “spies behind enemy lines” who gather information for a long time to figure out where to deploy troops in a high-tech battle against disease.

Her own lab uses genetics and neuroscience in studies of C. elegans, a worm that has only 302 neurons, yet shows relatively complex behaviors. Her new role is the latest stage in a career that has included work in cancer biology, cell biology, and genetics.

“I’ve seen how different fields have succeeded and grown,” and Chan and Zuckerberg want to bring them together because, Bargmann said, “all will be important going forward.”

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