The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is launching a new, $300 million initiative that applies advanced computer science to some of the hardest problems in medicine — an endeavor it said could uncover new ways to fight cancer, infectious disease, and other illnesses.
The Cambridge research center early Thursday announced the creation of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center, named for the former Google chief executive and his wife, who are major funders of the effort.
The money comes as biological and medical researchers are unlocking information about the human body at a scale that could take lifetimes to analyze and fully understand without the help of sophisticated artificial intelligence software. The institute hopes that by focusing its resources and expertise on developing and improving these programs, it will be able to spot patterns and unlock some of the basic mysteries of the human body.
In an interview, Eric Schmidt said he views the contribution as key to continuing the work of “mapping the language of life,” a hugely complicated proposition that is only conceivable because of the rapidly developing capacity of computer programs to help researchers find patterns in massive sets of data.
Eric Schmidt was the chief executive of Google from 2001 to 2011, and then the company’s executive chairman until 2018. He oversaw a period of incredible growth for the search engine giant as it expanded into technologies including business services and artificial intelligence. Schmidt also has been a technology adviser to the Obama administration and the US Department of Defense. He has been a board member at the Broad Institute since 2012.
He and Wendy Schmidt both said they believe most people would be astonished by the scope of things that science still cannot explain, such as the tangled web of interactions between the cells in our bodies.
“Life is full of patterns,” said Wendy Schmidt. She said advances in computing can help tease those out in ways that individual scientists’ observations cannot. “Then you get to the frontiers of whole new ways of looking at disease, and aging, and all of the things that plague humans.”
The Schmidts will contribute $150 million to the center, the largest gift so far from their Schmidt Futures initiative to support “exceptional people making the world better.” Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe L. Broad will give the same amount. The Broads, for whom the institute is named, have now given more than $1 billion to the cause.
The new funding comes as an endowment, which will support the center’s efforts over time. The institute said it expects to ultimately create some dedicated lab space for the center, but that its early work will likely be focused on building connections between the two fields it hopes to combine.
Nonetheless, the money highlights the extent to which the Broad has become a fund-raising powerhouse, drawing investment to the Boston area from around the world. It reported raising $127.9 million from philanthropists in the most recent fiscal year, along with receiving $187.1 million in federal funding. Overall, its revenue was $529.1 million.
The Broad, founded in 2003, grew out of one of the key teams working on the Human Genome Project at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Researchat MIT. After the completion of the massive effort, researchers there set off to begin work on analyzing ways to interpret and apply the new knowledge of our DNA.
Broad scientists also have played important roles in the development of cutting-edge science, including the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. And this year, President Biden chose the Broad’s founder and director, Eric Lander, as his science adviser.
The institute also has been a part of the local infrastructure behind the response to COVID-19. It set up one of the country’s first major COVID-19 test-processing facilities, and it has run millions of tests for public agencies, universities, and other organizations.
The work at the Schmidt Center will focus on issues beyond infectious disease, including cancer, heart disease, and genetic disorders that scientists are only now beginning to understand. Still, Anthony Philippakis, Broad’s chief data officer, said he believes the work at the center could develop technologies that will help contain future contagions.
“The development of new therapeutics is a key area of focus for the Schmidt Center, and that’s at every stage, from identifying targets, to identifying molecules, to helping develop instruments, to selecting patients for trials,” said Philippakis, who is codirector of the new center. “That would improve a range of diseases, including new infectious diseases. There’s no question that this is an area of focus.”
Researchers around the world have been seeking to harness the growing power of artificial intelligence to speed the response to coronavirus. Some seek to understand ways medicines might exploit its weaknesses and blunt its strengths. Others are looking for insights into how it spreads and who should get vaccinated first.
But even as the pandemic has shown the promise and progress of the field, it also has put some of the limitations on display. Among them is the difficulty of accumulating data sources that are robust enough that they can lead the software programs analyzing them to firm conclusions. Many pieces of information that might be helpful have been accumulated separately by governments, hospitals, and academic researchers who may not be able to share it with one another.
The Schmidt Center plans to work with several other organizations on the front line of artificial intelligence and medical research, using data the Broad has collected itself along with material shared by scientists around the world.
Collaborators will include the Broad’s existing connections at Harvard and MIT, along with researchers at the Mayo Clinic; biopharmaceutical companies, including Genentech, AstraZeneca, and Novartis; and major tech firms such as Google and Microsoft.
“There will be people working together across vastly different sectors that have not worked together before,” said Caroline Uhler, also a codirector of the center, and a faculty computer scientist at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “This requires time, and a lot of funding. And I think that’s what will put us into a better position for the next pandemic, or the next challenge that will be coming up.”