Big Grants, High-Risk Science: Paul Allen's Foundation Keeps Stepping It Up

It started out as a community improvement foundation, if you can believe that. Yes, once upon a time, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation existed to support venture business growth, arts and culture, and education in and around the Pacific Northwest—and that was the extent of its ambitions. And while the geographic focus has stayed the same, in recent years, the PGAFF has made serious strides into the deep and compelling waters of science. Specifically, cell science.

In 2010, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation established the Allen Distinguished Investigator Awards, a competitive grant program that supports high-risk, high-reward ideas in science. That was the tip of the iceberg. Since then, it’s done everything to align itself more and more closely with the sciences, and with the Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science, founded in 2003, which has received over $500 million from Allen since its inception.

Now, as the PGAFF announces its first 2015 round of Distinguished Investigators, that direction is becoming ever more distilled and clear. This round is $7.5 million, and it supports six research teams, all working in the area of neuronal maturation. It’s really tough to grow mature brain cells in the lab, see, and it takes a long time. Being able to grow mature brain cells reliably would facilitate all kinds of studies into how they interact with diseases and disorders, therapies, and each other.

This year, Daniel Geschwind and Steve Horvath of UCLA will receive $1.2 million for their project using mathematical predictions to create stable cell cultures—those similar to functioning brain neurons. Feng Zhang of MIT will receive $1 million to create a scalable genomic engineering system able to gauge genetic activity that gives rise to differentiated cells. Jeffrey Macklis from Harvard will receive $1.5 million to develop molecular timekeepers—data recorders that enable researchers to observe and measure cell maturation, biological interactions, and diversity. Erik Ullian and David Rowitch of UCSF were awarded $1 million, and they’ll be testing whether the signals from different classes of human astrocytes are required in order for iPS-derived neurons to function correctly. William Lowry and Kathrin Plath of UCLA will receive $1.3 million to use a model system they created specifically to isolate and identify types of neurons believed to be dysfunctional in disorders such as Alzheimer’s, autism and schizophrenia. Lastly, Thomas Reh, Rachel Wong, and Fred Rieke of the University of Washington were awarded $1.3 million to address two of the biggest hurdles to neuronal maturation—the staggering diversity of cells in the brain, and the so-called developmental “clock.” This team will be working on the retina, which is a self-contained part of the nervous system.

"This new cohort of Allen Distinguished Investigators and their research is especially significant because the field of neuronal maturation is at the leading edge of bioscience," said Tom Skalak, executive director for science and technology at the foundation. "The awardees' broad talents and areas of expertise are what we need to explore this beckoning undiscovered territory."