The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub: Seeking to Cure All Diseases

Chan (left) and Mark (right) Zuckerberg. Image from Reuters/Stephen Lam.
©Thomson Reuters 2016.
A few months ago, we discussed Sean Parker and his Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. BioLegend is a key reagent contributor for this $250 million grant aimed at defeating cancer. Now in the new year, another key Facebook contributor is making headlines in research. If you’re not familiar with Mark Zuckerberg, his claim to fame comes from the creation of Facebook, a near ubiquitous app valued at an estimated $350 billion with 1.86 billion subscribers1. He and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have engaged in numerous philanthropic pursuits and made sizeable donations to this point, including2:
  • $1.6 billion to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation
  • $120 million to San Francisco Bay Area schools
  • $100 million to the Newark New Jersey school system
  • $75 million to the San Francisco General Hospital (where Priscilla worked)
  • $25 million to the Center for Disease Control
  • $20 million to the Education Super Highway
Now, Chan and Zuckerberg are seeking an incredibly lofty goal: to “cure, manage, or prevent all diseases” by the year 2100. This plan was started with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a limited liability company that will be funded by 99% of the couple’s Facebook shares (an estimated value of $45 billion). This was announced in a letter to their newborn daughter in late 2015.
Read the full letter here.

He looks like a natural.
Image from Stanford Medicine.
With the CZ Initiative set up and funding plans in place, the couple announced the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. The CZ Biohub (CZB) provides $50 million in funding for researchers based in the San Francisco area at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). 750 researchers applied for the grants, but ultimately, 47 (who are listed here) are going to receive cash grants of up to $1.5 million3. Overall, the CZB is expected to receive $600 million over the course of ten years. The CZB also had some interesting provisions and choices for their grants. For example, some individual investigator awards were reserved specifically for non-tenured scientists, making it easier for newer scientists to obtain a grant without competing with more senior researchers. For those averse to either the teaching or grant writing process, the Biohub created lab-leader positions that are devoid of these responsibilities.
There are two main components to the CZB: the Infectious Disease Initiative and the Cell Atlas. The Cell Atlas’ goal is to document and characterize every single cell within every tissue and organ of the human body. One of the purposes of this is to understand the nature of a healthy cell, then analyze how certain diseases affect them. Once the atlas is completed, the CZB plans to make this information readily available internationally to all scientists. They cite new technological advancements in sequencing and CRISPR as reasons why the atlas can be completed now. With an understanding of the cell types, CRISPR may then allow them to specifically edit combinations of genes or study protein functions to observe their roles in disease4.
The CZB wants to create an expanded version of our Cell Markers page.
In recent years, the world has been caught off guard by sudden outbreaks like Ebola and SARS. Public outcry quickly followed as the demand for vaccines and answers rose. The Infectious Disease Initiative (IDI) looks to take action on this front by developing new drugs and using computer models to help design vaccines and analyze data. In addition, the IDI is looking to create a universal diagnostic test to help diagnose virtually any infectious disease.
The basis for this last objective stems from a patient case in 2014, where a 14 year old boy was infected with a bacterial encephalitis that attacked the brain. His illness came on precipitously as he was hospitalized for six weeks and then put into a medically induced coma. Thankfully, Dr. Charles Chiu and Joseph DeRisi, PhD, led a team to use next-generation sequencing to diagnose the patient’s cerebrospinal fluid and blood within 48 hours. They then compared the obtained sequences to patient samples in GenBank, discovering 475 distinct DNA sequences from the cerebrospinal fluid that belonged to the bacteria, Leptospira (for comparison, 3 million sequences were found to be human). Penicillin was administered and eliminated the infection. This was done without actual confirmation of the diagnosis as a standard clinical test wasn’t available at the time. It wasn’t until 5 months later that the CDC confirmed the doctors were correct on their Leptospira hypothesis5. The rapid advancements in sequencing affordability and speed are reasons that the IDI are bullish on the future of disease assessment.
The first phase of Leptospira infection and its symptoms may subside quickly, but the secondary phase can cause meningitis and encephalitis.
The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is pushing boundaries with the new technology at hand, and it’s encouraging to see some of the leaders in technology (Zuckerberg, Parker, and Bill Gates to name a few) take such interest in fostering strong research environments. Do you have any additional thoughts on the Biohub? Is the goal of curing all diseases by 2100 possible? Let us know at
Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.

  1. Why Facebook could one day be worth $1 trillion
  2. What you should know about Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Gift News
  3. Mark Zuckerberg’s Research Hub Just Gave 47 Scientists $50 Million to Fight Diseases
  4. Chan Zuckerberg BioHub Homepage
  5. UCSF Genome Experts Show Value of “Next-Generation Sequencing” in Diagnosing Infection
Click for Reuters Restrictions.
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