Go With the Gut: A Legacy Foundation and Silicon Valley Funder Team Up on Cell Research

Photo: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

Photo: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

When scientists launch immense global research initiatives like the Human Genome Project—or more recently, the Human Cell Atlas—we civilians vaguely understand that such projects can deepen human knowledge. We also want to know what’s in it for us.

One big thing that’s in it, of course, is the potential for treatments for all kinds of diseases. But the step from mapping the human genome or defining all human cells to developing treatments is a big and costly one that’s going to need philanthropy’s heavy hitters. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was an early backer of the Human Cell Atlas, supporting the development of the basic science involved in the project. Now, it’s joined forces with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust on a critical new piece of cell research.

Growing Momentum

The Human Cell Atlas has many similarities to the $3 billion Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003 after 15 years of work. The HCA, however, is already yielding results: Massachusetts General Hospital published its first major Human Cell Atlas discovery, reporting that the lining of the windpipe has seven cell types instead of the expected six, which could prove crucial for understanding and curing cystic fibrosis.

Helmsley and CZI want to keep the ball rolling. Recently, the two grantmakers announced RFAs for two new funding methods for researchers studying the gut. One seeks to create a Gut Cell Atlas (GCA) that would catalogue the various cell types in the small and large intestines.

“By creating a Gut Cell Atlas, there is tremendous potential to better understand Crohn’s disease and gut health issues and develop better treatments for patients,” said Garabet Yeretssian, Ph.D., Director of the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Crohn’s Disease Program, in a press release.

Helmsley’s interest is related to the role of the gut on Crohn’s disease, the inflammatory gastrointestinal disease that’s one of the organization’s priority areas. The GCA will leverage other research to reveal the linkages between cells, tissues and disease, and possibly lead to the development of treatments for Crohn’s—and also to serve as a model for building atlases for other organ systems.

A Collaborative Approach

Comprising another Helmsley-CZI funding mechanism are so-called Seed Networks. For the Helmsley opportunity, these networks must focus on the gut but for all the CZI initiatives the field is wide open.These grants support interdisciplinary teams consisting of at least three principal investigators, including computational biologists, software engineers, experimental biologists, and/or physicians to apply their knowledge of particular cell systems and technologies to the intestine. The collaborations will generate new tools and data that can be shared among researchers and research institutes. 

The Gut Cell Atlas Seed Networks RFA is CZI’s third RFA in support of the HCA over the past two years. Previously, CZI announced support for 85 new projects that did not focus specifically on the gutto create collaborative computational tools in support of building the HCA, as well as 38 pilot projects to establish best practices and technologies.

Initiatives like the Human Genome Project or the Human Cell Atlas are important contributions to human knowledge, but philanthropy needs to keep pushing to translate research into real-world treatments and cures.

One positive aspect of the collaboration between Helmsley and CZI is that it’s another example of a legacy foundation and a newer funding outfit working to advance a shared goal. By joining forces this way, grantmakers might accelerate progress.

Related: A Foundation for Breakthroughs: Behind a Quest to Map Every Cell in the Human Body