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Dr. Stephen Quake is on the left. Source: CZ Biohub

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced the nearly 50 investigators they will be funding as part of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (CZ Biohub), a nonprofit created with the ambitious goal to eradicate all deadly disease in their children’s lifetime.

The couple announced in Sept. 2016 that they plan to invest an estimated $3 billion over the next 10 years to fund innovative solutions that combat numerous diseases, including heart disease, cancer, neurological conditions and infectious pathogens like Ebola and Zika.

The first round of CZ Biohub recipients will receive grants worth more than 50 million dollars.

The venture will work with three prominent colleges in the San Francisco area including Stanford, the University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco.

"We signed collaboration agreements with three of the top universities in the Bay Area to help invent the future of biotechnology,” explained Dr. Stephen Quake, Ph.D., the co-president of the biohub and a professor of bioengineering and applied physics, in an interview with R&D Magazine.

Selecting the Candidates

It wasn’t easy to narrow down the applicant pool, according to Quake.

"Over 750 people submitted a three-page application proposing risky but innovative ideas. In return, we'd provide them with the funding to work on their ideas in an unrestricted capacity,” said Quake regarding the application process.

A panel comprised of 60 prominent engineers and scientists sifted through the applications that came from the three universities. Submissions came from a diverse array of departments, including computer science, engineering and mathematics before settling on the final 47 participants.

“It's a phenomenal gathering of talent working on issues like using computer science to help understand human health through the use of wearables," added Quake.

One notable member of this program is Jure Leskovec, Ph.D., who is a computer scientist at Stanford and the chief scientist at Pinterest. His work at the biohub will focus on using data to help biologists comprehend the interactions between the genes and proteins exposed to drugs or disease, according to Nature.

Other investigators include Ada Poon, Ph.D., hailing from Stanford who is studying new techniques for miniaturing bioelectronics devices, and Markita Landry, Ph.D., who is working on nanosensor technology and near infrared imaging platforms designed to visualize neurotransmitters in the brain.

The CZ Biohub will institute policies that enable quick dissemination of research papers through pre-print servers. This will help inform other researchers of their work and expedite the discovery process.

Mapping the Human Body

Helping these investigators with their respective projects isn’t the only initiative the Biohub is working on.

The Cell Atlas is envisioned as a, “shared resource for health and disease that could be broadly useful across a wide variety of fields," said Quake.

Essentially, it will be a compendium of information describing and defining the cellular basis of health and disease. A team of engineers, biologists, and technologists will use tools like single-cell genomics to create a detailed genetic analysis going cell by cell and organ to organ.

Well-known gene-editing technology CRISPR will play a role in this endeavor as well. The team will use the tool to conduct experiments where they could analyze how a specific combination of on-or-off genes could hinder or reverse the progression of a disease.

Furthermore, the scientists could eventually “annotate” the Atlas with tiny fluorescent tags to identify certain proteins in each cell that are responsible for producing a number of bodily functions.

Outcomes from this enterprise could include creating an expansive list of immune cells that could help drug companies create a suite of innovative autoimmune therapies.

Combatting Infectious Diseases

Viral infections are also a focus on the Biohub.

"We want to develop new technologies to diagnose, prevent, and treat disease,” said Quake.

Potential avenues being explored by the Infectious Disease initiative include using genomic sequencing to create a universal diagnostic test that could pinpoint any infectious disease with a high level of accuracy.

Using a mix of structural biology, machine learning, and computer-assisted protein design to produce potent vaccine candidates is on the docket as well.

The emergence of infectious pathogens like Ebola, SARS, and Zika has forced the healthcare industry to consider new ways of responding to these incidents.

Experts criticized the U.S. response to 2014 Ebola outbreak, stressing the need for a robust emergency operation capacity at the World Health Organization whereas developing drugs for this disease was a laborious process.

Next Steps

Investigators will gain a five-year appointment and up to $1.5 million in funding to kick start their research projects.

There are other research institutes forming in Silicon Valley, but with slightly different approaches. Sean Parker, the entrepreneur behind notorious music-sharing service Napster, launched a consortium aimed at immunotherapy research as well as a separate operation geared towards allergy research.

However, Quake said the Biohub concept appeals to a lot of researchers.

“There’s only a small number of faculty positions available each year and not everyone wants to teach, so we want the Biohub to be an alternate career path for researchers who love science,” he said.

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