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

  paulista/shutterstock

 paulista/shutterstock

In the years since Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced they'd direct their incomprehensibly large fortune into philanthropy, we have been watching their giving as patterns and strategy come into focus.

One theme that stands out is the couple's expansive timeframe for tackling complex topics; when you're in your early 30s and have tens of billions of dollars to give, you can play the long game in a serious way. Another theme is how they're focused on putting in place key foundational elements for change, particularly new technological tools and databases. In fact, many of the people hired by CZI over the past year, if not most, have been techies. 

This mix of long-term commitment and a focus on building blocks is most apparent in CZI's work in the health sciences. Zuckerberg and Chan memorably stated their goal to cure or manage virtually all disease by the end of the century.

Century-long goals require century-long support. The single largest gift made so far by the couple was the more than half-billion dollars they gave a few years ago to create the BioHub; billions more will to flow for CZI's health science work in coming decades. 

One intriguing part of this work—which underscores CZI's systemic approach to a goal that some see as grandiose—is the Human Cell Atlas project. This is a global effort to map every cell in the human body to enable and accelerate biological and medical research. Last month, CZI announced it would fund 85 new projects to develop "an open set of computational tools, algorithms, visualization methods, and benchmark datasets for scientists working on Cell Atlas."

Related: CZI's Latest Move in Science Research Underscores its Role as Tech Toolmaker

The 85 one-year projects will help CZI get its arms around the gargantuan global cell atlas project. The goal is to set the stage for progress by first developing standards for the study and structure of data so scientists can efficiently share data and build on each other's work. That ought to come at the start of an ambitious project like the cell atlas.

"Project groups will collaborate with each other, and with our scientists and software engineers, to maximize the reach and impact of the new tools," CZI said in its announcement of the 85 awards. Last year, CZI funded 38 pilot projects at Human Cell Atlas.

A premise of the Human Cell Atlas project is that cells are the key to understanding the biology of health and disease, yet there's limited understanding of many of the body's 30 trillion cells. Other recent advances in genomics, however, are greatly expanding knowledge of cells and their function, says CZI: "we can now realistically envision a human cell atlas to serve as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring and treating disease."

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan aren't the only big league philanthropists interested in better understanding human cells. Not long ago, as we reported, Paul Allen created a new institute for cell science.  And Eli and Edythe Broad have been the main benefactors of the Broad Institute, a key player in cell research. 

Meanwhile, CZI's cell atlas isn't the only area for which it's leveraging the large-scale software development skills that generated the Zuckerberg-Chan wealth in the first place. Cori Bargmann, who heads CZI's health sciences work, has said that a central goal of its work is to focus the expertise of commercial software design on scientific projects like the cell atlas. “Because right now, the technology that’s used to sell you stuff you don’t need is more sophisticated than the technology your doctor is using to diagnose disorders and the technology that scientists are using to handle the data we generate,” Bargmann has said.