Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder turned billionaire philanthropist, will donate $US100 million to create a research center tasked with investigating the inner workings of human cells. The ultimate goal is to deepen our understanding of how diseases emerge and how they can be treated and prevented.
“Cells are the fundamental units of life, with every disease we know of affecting particular types of cells,” said Allen, in a press release from the new center. “We conceived of the Allen Institute for Cell Science as a catalyzing force to integrate technologies and approaches at a large scale in order to provide an exceptional resource for the entire scientific community.”
The institute will be based in Seattle.
For its first project, the Allen Cell Observatory, more than 70 scientists will collaborate to create a visual database describing in great detail how every kind of cell works, down the molecular level, so that their normal behaviour can be predicted and their aberrant behaviour demystified. In an interview with Nature News, the center’s new executive director, cell biologist Rick Horwitz, compared this unified effort to the Manhattan Project.
The multidisciplinary approach “will bring together biologists, microscopy experts, data scientists and others from a diverse set of fields under one roof,” noted The Washington Post, a crucial part of the center’s strategy. And the center’s “data, models, and tools” will be publicly available online.
“People have studied individual systems but no one has tried to integrate it,” Horwitz said. “It’s a huge project.”
The new donation from Allen, whose Allen Institute for Brain Science has generated important results and innovations for neuroscience, has the potential to be transformative because it will focus a huge amount of research energy on basic science, which can be difficult to fund but has the potential have a broad, if unpredictable, impact.
“These longer-term kinds of investments tend to be neglected because everyone wants short-term outputs,” biochemist Bruce Alberts, who met with Allen earlier this year, told The Washington Post. “I am very pleased Paul Allen has a different vision.”
Still, one scientist pointed out to Nature News, “it will take time” to see whether the accomplishments of the center live up to its lofty goals. Allen will be paying close attention. After five years, he will decide whether or not to continue funding.