Show Me the Details: What’s This New Allen Institute Going to Actually Do?

So, Paul Allen’s giving $100 million to establish the Allen Institute for Cell Science. But what, exactly, is the Institute going to do once it’s formed? Where is it going to focus? Good questions. Media coverage has so far been full of catchy, slogan-y prose long on sound bites but short on actual content. “The genome is like the White Pages, and we’re like Google Maps!” said institute Director Rick Horwitz.

Great, but what on Earth does that actually mean?

Related - Next up for this Billionaire: Breaking New Ground in Cell Science

For starters, it means they’re thinking spatially. There’s a large body of information available regarding different cell functions, from what types of cells are implicated in certain cancers to how specific organelles behave under stress. But reading a sentence in a book or a peer-reviewed journal article is very different from watching the actual body move under the microscope, or even from knowing what sorts of movements are going to occur when a cell is subjected to a specific kind of stimulus.

The Allen Institute’s goal is to take information about cell behavior out of the abstract and into the concrete. A key to understanding cells, said Horwitz, is to investigate their behavior in space and time. In cancer, for example, cells are doing the wrong things at the wrong times. Activities are turned off when they should be on, the timing is wrong or too many proteins are expressed in the wrong places, he said.

Initially, scientists are going to work with something called induced pluripotent stem cells. These are adult cells that will be reprogrammed to behave just like cells from an early embryo: fast-changing, fast-growing, and mutable. It’s that mutability that’s key, as researchers will manipulate these cells, growing them into different cell types for the purpose of studying their behavior. Their starting point? Heart tissue. In time, they’ll move on to creating other types of cells and studying them under different simulated circumstances.

Allen, who’s worth $16 billion and got into science research philanthropy after battling both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was initially inspired to start looking at the inner workings of cells when he talked to biologists and realized good predictive models for the behavior of cells just didn’t exist.

 “He’s a quantitative guy,” says Horwitz. This led Allen to the realization that understanding cells might be the key to an enhanced understanding of cancer. But the impacts could go even farther than that. As Allen Institute CEO Allan Jones puts it, “Cells are a battleground for every disease known to humankind.”