$100 million to fund exploration of biosciences
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Scientists; Biomedical research; Bioengineering; Philanthropy; Computer science; Researchers
Author: Ariana Eunjung Cha
Date: Mar 24, 2016
Start Page: A.2
Section: A-SECTION

Paul Allen hopes to aid researchers who are thinking out of the box

Billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen announced Wednesday a $100 million commitment to fund scientific endeavors at the "frontiers of bioscience" that he describes as having major implications for humankind.

An initial set of grants will go to Stanford and Tufts universities for the creation of new research centers and to individual scientists with unconventional approaches to projects in tissue regeneration, antibiotic resistance, gene editing and the development of brain circuitry.

Allen said the 10-year undertaking grew out of a realization that the biological sciences are at a critical point in history, with technology now able to take the field in a more quantitative direction than ever before. New tools can manipulate DNA, next-generation microscopes measure and create images of the tiniest parts of living systems, and super-powerful computers are able to make sense of massive amounts of data.

"What I believe is that this is potentially a game-changer for our understanding of complex biological systems," Allen said.

His goal is to help facilitate a more interdisciplinary approach by giving scientists with out-of-the-box ideas the equipment, staff and connections to counterparts in math, engineering, physical sciences and computer science - so their work can reach its full potential, he explained.

The Microsoft co-founder, who is estimated to be worth $17.7 billion, has become one of the world's most influential philanthropists in the sciences in recent years, and not just because of the huge sums he has given away. Allen approaches the issues from the perspective of a computer scientist and an entrepreneur. To him, questions about intelligence and possibly even life itself are potentially "solvable" through data - but only if scientists take big risks and aren't afraid of failure.

In explaining his newest philanthropic venture, for instance, Allen described biology as "unbelievably complex, almost fractally complex" and said he aims to "defeat" this complexity.

The effort will be housed within an entity called the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and run by Tom Skalak, a longtime vice president of research at the University of Virginia whom Allen handpicked to serve as executive director. Skalak, whose own research is in bioengineering, said the group hopes to ramp up its grant-making quickly and aims to fund as many as 10 partner centers and 25 scientists at any given time. Both young and experienced investigators will be included.

"What we are looking for is pioneers willing to head in the opposite direction than some of the established lines of inquiry," he said.

Skalak said the research that went into the Frontiers Group took over a year and involved a listening tour and meetings with more than 1,000 researchers, university administrators, futurists and others. At each meeting, Skalak said he told everyone that the goal was to try to understand the "dark matter of bioscience."

"What are the undiscovered frontiers you would like to throw some light on?" Skalak asked.

Although the total money involved represents only a tiny fraction of the roughly $15 billion the National Institutes of Health has given out in recent years for biomedical research, the individual Allen awards will be unusually large and unrestricted. Each Frontiers Group partner university will receive as much as $30 million and researchers $1 million to $1.5 million.

Allen and Skalak said the selection process will target research areas that may be too early, too radical or too "high-risk" to make it through the government's often conservative grant-making process.

Allen cited the work of Stanford's Markus Covert - a professor in systems biology who will head the newly funded center there - as having a particular influence on his thinking. Covert has become well known for his mesmerizingly beautiful and detailed cell modeling, an area that overlaps with Allen's own computer science background.

"I came to think that, as it scales up from simple organisms to eventually mammalian organisms, it holds tremendous promise," Allen noted. Covert will use the Frontiers award to focus on macrophages, cells that scientists think are fundamental to understanding how the human immune system works.

James Collins, a bioengineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will use his grant to try to engineer organisms that could help to trap and kill bacteria resistant to traditional antibiotics. "What we know about what antibiotics do to the body is remarkably incomplete," Collins said.

Allen is just one of the growing number of tech industry pioneers deploying their fortunes to advance science. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Sergey Brin and others have teamed up to create the Breakthrough Prizes, which are awarded each year to scientists in various fields and have become known as Silicon Valley's Nobels. Napster's Sean Parker has funded an institute that aims to cure allergies, eBay's Pierre Omidyar is backing research on resilience, and PayPal's Peter Thiel has targeted "breakout" ideas in science.

ariana.cha@washpost.com