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News // October 28, 2016 MAAC Staff

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Seeks a Disease-Free Future

As the fight to eliminate diseases affecting mankind continues, more organizations are coming forward with different approaches towards achieving similar goals. One of the most promising organizations is the newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – an ambitious effort by the founder of Facebook and his wife to cure all diseases.

The Chan Zuckerberg initiative was launched in December 2015 by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician. Together, the power couple contributed more than $3 billion dollars in Facebook shares ($1 billion in shares per year over three years) to kickstart the project. The goal is pretty simple: to bring together multidisciplinary teams of scientists in an effort to prevent, cure, or manage all diseases in the lives of children in their lifetime.

Introducing the Biohub

The first major investment of the initiative is a $600 million biomedical center in San Francisco known as the Biohub. Opened in September, the Biohub is looking to bring together scientists and engineers in an attempt to solve the world’s most significant health issues. The first two projects started by the Biohub are the Infectious Disease Initiative and The Cell Atlas.

Through the Infectious Disease Initiative, scientists are focused on finding better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases that can be contracted by individuals and spread throughout the population. The project is looking at everything from the AIDS (HIV) to the Zika virus, developing new techniques, drugs, and vaccinations to fight – and hopefully eliminate – these communicable diseases.

The Cell Atlas channels a different type of ambition. The project goal is to map every type of cell in the human body to better understand the mechanisms by which they work and to find new ways to repair them when things go wrong. This has massive implications for diseases like mesothelioma and other forms of cancer, which are caused by the malfunctioning of cell replication processes in the body. More knowledge about how, for example, mesothelial cells work and react to substances like asbestos could provide major improvements in how the disease is diagnosed and treated.

These Biohub projects are just the beginning, and scientists, engineers, and technicians are already developing new devices and thinking of new ways to approach disease research. As more projects come online, and more new tools and techniques become available, similarly ambitious goals for the Biohub will come about.

Dr. Bargmann: The Woman Behind Chan Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are the primary financiers behind the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, but the person driving the science and medical research is Dr. Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist and professor at The Rockefeller University. On October 1, 2016, Dr. Bargmann became the president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, bringing her experience as a researcher and as a leader of other high-profile scientific efforts.

In interviews Dr. Bargmann has stated that she believes it is possible to realistically accomplish goals like the Cell Atlas project in ten years, equating it to the Human Genome Project. “Science is an enterprise where we build on the progress of the past, and hope that, in the future, people will build on our accomplishments,” she told National Public Radio. Looking at long-term health-related projects will offer more opportunities to create that foundation for later generations to build.

This sort of effort is definitely necessary for diseases like mesothelioma, which has a particularly long latency period. We don’t know how many people are still being exposed to asbestos today, given how ubiquitously the substance was used in the past. It is still located everywhere, and nearly every day there are news reports of asbestos being found in buildings like schools, universities, office buildings, and homes. If a project like the Cell Atlas could discover how mesothelioma cells react to asbestos, and find new ways to prevent or treat that response, then people who are exposed today might have much better treatments available in the future.

Collaborating for Cures

The key behind this hopeful work, according to Dr. Bargmann and the founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is bringing the right talent together and giving them both the funding and the freedom to follow their research where it will lead. This means that the $3 billion they are giving over the next three years is just the beginning, and they plan to go a lot further.

However, the ultimate goal is not to cure disease. Rather, the goal of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is really about promoting equality and letting individuals achieve their true potential. One of the ways to do that is by making sure they are not sick or suffering from disease. So if the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is successful in curing all diseases, the result is much more than simply being health – it’s a fairer and more hopeful world for everyone.