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A look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s efforts to accelerate biomedical research

When it was introduced in late 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative made waves in the biomedical community. Established with an open letter to their daughter from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan, MD, the organization's goal is somewhat shocking: It aims to rid the world of disease by 2100.

Now, more than a year into the effort, Cori Bargmann, PhD, and Stanford's Stephen Quake, PhD, provided attendees of the Big Data in Biomedicine conference an update on its work.

First, said Bargmann, a neurobiologist and geneticist who leads the CZI's science strategy, the organization's goal is not as crazy as it sounds. With 83 years until the end of the century, she urged listeners to think back 83 years ago. In 1934, there were no antibiotics or chemotherapy or blood pressure or cholesterol drugs. The connection between cigarette smoking and cancer was unknown.

Since then, obviously, biomedicine has made huge progress, she said. CZI's "mission is to think about what kinds of support for basic science and technology can provide an accelerating function," Bargmann said. The organization aims to speed things up and to make tools currently available only to a few more broadly accessible. More than half a billion, while a huge amount of money, is far from enough to fund a self-contained effort, she said.

To that end, CZI is working closely with the three Bay Area universities — Stanford; University of California, San Francisco; and University of California, Berkeley — to supplement their work, she said. It dedicated $600 million to the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, co-led by Quake, which will provide funding for innovative basic science researchers and to pursue projects, including an effort to inventory and compile information about all of the body's cells, a project called the Human Cell Atlas.

In addition, CZI is concentrating on developing or configuring technology to address biomedical problems. Currently, the most cutting-edge efforts in computer science and artificial intelligence are aimed at consumers, Bargmann pointed out. "There's a real opportunity to bring those back into the social goods, nonprofit section."

Another focus is on science policy: "Perhaps a point that's particularly important today is we need to step up, reach out to our elected officials and speak out and build support for science," she said.

CZI is also aiming to eliminate the delay that arises between the writing of a paper and its publication in a peer-reviewed journal. They've put money behind BioRxiv, a preprint publication for biosciences, modeled after arXiv, the well-known paper sharing service used in the physical and computer sciences.

"We believe in peer-reviewed literature. It's a fantastic way to share information, but it's not the only way," Bargmann said.

"It really feels like this is a tipping point in the culture of biology," Quake said. "How much faster can you make science go?"

Previously: "Predict, prevent and cure precisely," Stanford Medicine's Lloyd Minor urgesBig Data in Biomedicine Conference kicks off WednesdayFirst batch of Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigators announced and Stanford part of new Chan Zuckerberg Biohub
Photos by Rod Searcey

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