Business & Tech

$3b drive to end diseases apt to tap Boston area’s talent

Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan are donating $3 billion.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan are donating $3 billion.

It set the Longwood Medical Area and Kendall Square abuzz last week: not a medical breakthrough or the latest big-money biotech deal, but the audacious announcement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan, his Quincy-bred wife, that they would commit $3 billion to the bold goal of beating all diseases into submission by the end of the century.

Like Bill and Melinda Gates before them, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as the couple’s philanthropic organization is known, will bolster the tens of billions of dollars spent each year by the federal government on life sciences, a field in which the Boston region’s universities, hospitals, research institutes, and biotech companies are second to none.

There was a touch of envy that the new project, announced Wednesday, is being launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a $600 million research “Biohub” will link the University of California San Francisco, University of California Berkeley, and Stanford University. How could the Manhattan Project of medicine not be based here? But regional bragging rights aside, the effort will be a huge opportunity for Boston’s biomedical research complex.

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Cori Bargmann, a Rockefeller University neuroscientist and president of the new research initiative, said she already has begun talking to scientists in the Boston area about taking part in programs both to develop research tools and advance the underlying science that will lead to cures.

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Bargmann is well aware of this region’s research prowess, having spent 10 years as a graduate student and postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The Biohub [in San Francisco] is our prototype, but we are very much committed to supporting science more broadly across the country and the world,” she said, suggesting the initiative could embark on a series of new projects by the end of the year. “If I were a gambling man, I’d bet on Boston being part of it.” She declined to identify the local institutions she has approached.

While the initiative’s structure could enable it to set up venture capital funds to bankroll some drug discovery, Bargmann added, the primary focus won’t be short-term treatments but scientific breakthroughs that will lead to cures for terrible diseases like ALS, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s over the next several decades.

“You would expect that something with this level of aspiration has to go through Boston one way or another,” said Christopher M. Coburn, vice president of innovation at Partners HealthCare, a large hospital network that does more than $1.5 billion in annual research.

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Travis McCready, president of the state’s Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, said he and his colleagues are already planning to fly to San Francisco as soon as they can set up a meeting with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Zuckerberg, the 32-year-old billionaire behind Facebook, and Chan, a pediatrician, are promoting a lofty aim: curing, preventing, or managing all diseases within their children’s lifetimes. But it’s one many scientists they consulted believe is actually possible, they said. In an announcement on Facebook, Zuckerberg noted the numerous medical achievements in the past century alone: the eradication of smallpox, the development of vaccines, new treatments that have made HIV a chronic disease instead of a fatal one.

Zuckerberg and Chan said they would invest the $3 billion over the next 10 years and indicated they would commit even more in the following decades.

That money will be a small piece of overall research funding. The National Institutes of Health, for example, spends more than $30 billion a year to fund research, and more than $2.4 billion of that came to Massachusetts last year, according to figures reported by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

But many researchers are enthusiastic not just because of the funding Chan and Zuckerberg are offering, but their approach. They are pushing greater collaboration among scientists and engineers across different institutions, attempting to break down siloes in models similar to those promoted by Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.

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In the more traditional research paradigm, scientists compete for grants to conduct research in their individual labs, not likely to share data and technology openly with others.

“The major focus is to build new collaborative models,” said Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who advised Chan and Zuckerberg before they launched the initiative. “The most important projects that need to be done today really require that kind of collaboration.”

“With an approach like this, we can imagine a faster route to better treatments,” added Tyler Jacks, director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Susan Lindquist, an MIT professor and former director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, also spent hours talking science with the couple.

“We spoke about the largest and most difficult diseases,” she said, “where solving them would make a major difference for mankind.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal. Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.