Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife, Priscilla Chan, are launching an ambitious effort to spend $3 billion over the next decade to cure disease.
The goal is to “work together to cure, prevent or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime,” Dr. Chan said during an event in San Francisco for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the couple’s philanthropic group.
Dr. Chan spoke through tears as she recalled telling parents their child had an incurable disease or could not be revived, experiences she said made her even more determined to work with scientists and engineers to build new tools that can save lives by the end of the century.
Zuckerberg, who took the stage after his wife’s remarks, said he and Chan want to “make a better future for our children.”
As part of the investment, the couple is funding a $600 million research center in San Francisco called the Biohub that is a partnership with UC San Francisco, Stanford University and UC Berkeley. Neurobiologist Cori Bargmann is signing on as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s president of science.
Last December, the couple celebrated the birth of a baby girl with the stunning announcement they plan to give away most of their fortune through a new initiative to “advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation.” The Facebook founder and his physician wife pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook shares in their lifetime. So far the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made investments in an African coding start-up called Andela and Indian education start-up Byju.
Zuckerberg and Chan have drawn parallels to Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and wife Melinda, known for their philanthropic efforts.
Gates on Wednesday praised the couple, who have already made substantial investments in education, for “taking on another bold challenge.”
“This idea of curing and preventing all diseases by the end of the century, that’s very bold, very ambitious,” Gates said during remarks at the event. “I can’t think of a better partnership to take it on,” Gates said, noting Zuckerberg’s risk-taking entrepreneurial chops and Chan’s medical bonafides.
“They both love science and they are both very committed to where it can take us,” Gates said.
Joseph DeRisi, a UCSF biochemist, and Stephen Quake, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, will run the facility. It is embarking on its first two research projects: The Cell Atlas, a map of the different types of cells that control the body’s major organs, and the Infectious Disease Initiative, which will explore new approaches and develop new tools for creating drugs, diagnostic tests and vaccines that could aid the fight against such threats as HIV, Ebola and Zika.
“Future scientific advances likely will be at the interface of different disciplines — a ‘convergence’ that requires breaking down barriers between fields. This is exactly what Biohub is planning,” David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner and professor at the California Institute of Technology wrote in an editorial published Wednesday.
Chan said she and Zuckerberg spent two years talking to scientists. “We believe that the future we all want for our children is possible. We set a goal: Can we cure all diseases in our children’s lifetime? That does’t mean that no one will ever get sick. But it does mean that our children and their children should get sick a lot less. And that we should be able to detect and treat or at least manage it as an ongoing condition,” she said.
In his remarks, Zuckerberg laid out his vision for eradicating disease: bring engineers and scientists together to more swiftly build new tools to advance efforts to tackle leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, infectious diseases and neurological diseases.
He also called for investments in artificial intelligence to probe the brain, machine learning to explore cancer genomes, computer chips to detect infectious disease and bloodstream monitors to catch diseases.
“Today, just four kinds of diseases cause the majority of deaths. We can make progress on all of them with the right technology,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “Throughout history, most scientific breakthroughs have been preceded by the invention of new tools to help us see problems in new ways — like the telescope, the microscope and DNA sequencing. It’s not hard to imagine the modern tools required to accelerate breakthroughs in today’s four major disease area. So we’re going to focus on bringing scientists and engineers together to build these new tools and technologies.”
This is a long-term effort, Zuckerberg cautioned. “We plan to invest billions of dollars over decades,” he said. “But it will take years for these tools to be developed and longer to put them into full use. This is hard and we need to be patient, but it’s important.”
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