Cornelia Bargmann

Cornelia Bargmann speaks at the announcement of the new $3 billion biomedical venture launched by Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

Q&A: Can Facebook billions stop disease? This neuroscientist aims to find out

It’s proving to be a banner year for science philanthropy, with the likes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Napster Co-Founder Sean Parker giving hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research. Now, Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have joined the club. Today they announced a plan to devote $3 billion over the next 10 years to a new basic science initiative that will, under the leadership of neurobiologist Cornelia Bargmann of The Rockefeller University in New York City, bring together scientists and engineers to cure diseases.

The couple pledged to their newborn daughter last December to dedicate 99% of their Facebook shares—currently valued at $45 billion—to improving the world during their lifetimes. The newly created Chan Zuckerberg Initiative began with some education projects, but the organization will now draw on science “to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century,” they say.

This initiative is a spectacular opportunity to do something unique and forward looking and effective for science. When something like that comes your way, you just have to say yes.

Cornelia Bargmann, Rockefeller University

The couple has kept their plans under tight wraps, despite consulting over the past 2 years with dozens of scientific luminaries, many of whom gathered in San Francisco, California, today for a webcast—on Facebook of course—to announce the project. (One adviser, biologist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, discusses the initiative in a commentary released online today by Science.) The first investment will be a research center funded at $600 million over 10 years in San Francisco's Mission Bay. Led by technology expert Stephen Quake of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and University of California, San Francisco, biochemist and infectious disease expert Joseph DeRisi, the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub will bring together scientists and engineers from those institutions. Its first project will be a cell atlas that will use new technologies such as single cell sequencing and genome editing to detail the molecular characteristics of all the body’s cell types, Quake said. A second project will focus on infectious diseases, including developing new tools for early detection, better vaccines, and a rapid response team.

Zuckerberg and others also described plans for “challenge networks,” collaborative projects spread across many institutes, and 5-year positions for Biohub researchers to pursue risky ideas. They pledged to make all the tools and data freely available. Bargmann insisted that as bold as the initiative’s goals are, with enough time and talent, “this will work.”

Read Derek Lowe's take on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative at his blog In the Pipeline: "There’s some hubris, but it’s not at Microsoft levels – no talk of five or ten years to eradicate things that have been defeating the best scientists in the business for decades."

Bargmann, who starts on 15 October, has spent most of her career unraveling the neural pathways that control smell and behavior in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. But several years ago, she took on a more public role as co-chair of the advisory group to the President Barack Obama–backed Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a neuroscience-focused effort that is still developing. She spoke with Science earlier today about her new partnership with Chan and Zuckerberg. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How did you hear about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s science hopes? Did they approach you?

A: So Mark and Priscilla for the last couple years have been learning about science and deciding what they wanted to do. They talked to people like Art Levinson who is the former CEO at Genentech, and is now at Calico. They had met David Baltimore. They were introduced to other scientists. That sort of chain of introductions led them to me—by way of [molecular biologist] Shirley Tilghman, the former president of Princeton [University], who suggested to them maybe it would be a good idea to have a neuroscientist because it’s a forward looking area of medicine where there are a lot of unmet needs. So their thinking was pretty advanced by the time I starting talking to them [late last fall], they had already formulated what kinds of things they wanted to do, and I just resonated with that instantly

Q: Why did you want to leave full-time research for this new job? Was it a tough sell?

A: Well, I've had a lab for 25 years. It is the greatest thing in world to be a scientist, you get to explore your creativity, you get to try ideas, you get to work with students, you get to meet really, really smart people. This initiative is a spectacular opportunity to do something unique and forward looking and effective for science. When something like that comes your way, you just have to say yes.

Q: Did working on the BRAIN Initiative get you interested in leading a big science project?

A: When I was asked to lead the BRAIN Initiative I wondered whether they maybe had the wrong number because I had really never done anything that indicated that I had that kind of leadership ability. And I think that the NIH [National Institutes of Health] saw something that I didn't know about. And I have found the work on the BRAIN Initiative to be incredibly satisfying. I guess I’ve seen in 3 years that you can work together with scientists from all different backgrounds and sensibilities and come up with something better than anyone can do alone. I think that prepared me both realistically and psychologically for what it would take to try to do something like this on an even grander scale.

Q: The goal of curing or managing all diseases by 2100 is very broad and ambitious. It’s the kind of statement that can make scientists cringe. Do you think it's doable?

A: First of all, do you know how much medicine has advanced in the past 80 years? Even in our lifetime in terms of heart disease and cancer and AIDS. Why should that stop now? Shouldn't that actually accelerate now that we've developed more skills and become more sophisticated? The second part is, part of the genius of this [initiative], that long-term timeframe. That was something that Mark and Priscilla had been thinking about even before they talked to me. And that was what made me think they were on the right track. Because there are a lot of problems you can't do in 2 years or 5 years. There are a lot of problems that will take decades. But if you know they’re important, you keep working on them.

It’s great to have a statement that makes people rock back on their feet and open their eyes wide. But then it's like, “Argue with me.” Give me a counterexample of why you couldn’t make this happen.

Q: But what will this science initiative do that is different from what major funders like NIH, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust are already doing?

A: Every American citizen should feel proud of what our country and our government does for medical research that benefits people all around the world. We taxpayers are supporting really important research on a much larger scale than Chan Zuckerberg science is going to be operating on. That doesn't mean there isn't an opening for other kinds of models and ideas as well. We've been focusing on this idea of technology development, bringing scientists and physician scientists and engineers together. That is something we're uniquely poised to do. We’re here with our founder in Silicon Valley who knows a lot of engineers and how to solve engineering problems. We have the ability to create that kind of sophistication from both sides. That’s not the way that traditional biomedical research works.

Q: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization already have rapid disease response teams. What will this add?

A: For the infectious disease component, I should refer the questions to Joe DeRisi. But just to be kind of a little challenging right now, look at the politics of Zika virus funding in this country. It’s embarrassing. How can we possibly be acting that way in the face of this huge potential human tragedy worldwide? There's room for more people to step up.

Q: Will you keep your lab?

A: I'm going to keep my lab at Rockefeller. I'm really thrilled about that because I totally identify as a scientist and that was just going to be too hard to give up if that was part of the equation. … My priority right now is to build this organization and try and make it the best thing possible. How this is all going to work out with the lab and the organization and the locations in the long term is to be determined. But I'm going to be spending an enormous amount of time out here in the Bay Area with Mark and Priscilla and the people at the Biohub getting the organization going.