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Epithelial cells will be one target of the new research institute.

Epithelial cells will be one target of the new research institute.

VCU Libraries/Flickr

Microsoft mogul to create new cell science center

Eleven years after he established an institute dedicated to mapping the brain, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is announcing a sequel: the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Just like its predecessor, the new institute will be seeded with $100 million from Allen himself; will embrace big-team science, bringing together cell biologists, mathematicians, computational biologists, and other specialists; and will seek to decipher a world whose complexity is still largely uncharted.

The buzz began just over a year ago, but the details weren’t revealed until today. At a press conference in downtown Philadelphia this afternoon, during the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, the scientists guiding the new institute spoke of it as science fiction come true.  “We are embarking on an amazing journey,” declared Rick Horwitz, the new institute’s executive director, who until recently was a professor of cell biology at the University of Virginia.

The venture will be housed in the same Seattle, Washington, building as the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and initial plans call for hiring 75 scientists to fill it. Its goal is grand: Decode the human cell by deciphering how its various pieces of machinery work together and how they are perturbed by gene mutations, drugs, and other forces. Ultimately, its leaders want to be able to predict how specific cells will behave in different circumstances.

But the institute’s first project will be narrower. Researchers plan to study how induced pluripotent stem cells transform into heart muscle and epithelial cells and compare and contrast how these transformations occur. The data and models generated will be made publicly available.

The $100 million infusion will last 5 years, until 2020, said Allan Jones, the CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, who was also present for the big announcement. And after that? Jones hinted that the new institute would likely follow a trajectory similar to his own, which in 2012 received another $300 million from Allen, while supplementing this philanthropy with federal grants.

Allen didn’t appear at today’s unveiling. But in response to a reporter’s question about why he was captivated by the cell, Jones pointed to its intricate machinery, which, from 10,000 feet up, isn’t all that different than the brain’s. “The issue of complexity is one” Allen keeps coming back to, he said.