Waking to the Potential of an Age of Biotechnology

I see that the Zuckerbergs have set themselves the ambitious goal of ending disease over the course of this century. Don't forget that these are the spokespeople for an organization, not a few individuals making choices. Billionaires are effectively each the head of their own small state with its own politics and varied goals, the center of circles of delegation and machination, and frequently have less freedom to direct resources than you might think they do. Nonetheless:

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announces $3 billion investment to cure disease

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative just announced a new program informally called Chan Zuckerberg Science to invest $3 billion over the next decade to help cure, prevent, or manage all disease. The money will bring together teams of scientists and engineers "to build new tools for the scientific community." Part of the $3 billion will go to a $600 million investment in Biohub, a new physical location that which will unite researchers from Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF with elite engineers to find new ways to treat disease. The majority of deaths are caused by heart disease, infectious disease, neurological disease, and cancer, so those are the areas where the program will concentrate its efforts. Mark Zuckerberg showed visible gusto, noting how our country spends 50x more on treating people who are sick than curing diseases so people don't get sick. "We can do better than that!" he exclaimed. To change this, Zuckerberg explained there must be a shift towards long-term thinking for research that requires more funding than typical academic grants can sustain. That's where his $45 billion fortune comes in.

Ambitious goals are good; far too few people with significant resources also choose to aim high, and the simple possession of wealth certainly doesn't magically grant vision. It is welcome to see that at least some of the wealthy of the world are waking up to the fact that this is an age of biotechnology in which the sky is the limit. The cost of medical research and development has plummeted over the past three decades. Yes, it is true that the straitjacket of regulation ensures that it is ever more costly to actually deploy medicine to the clinic, and that all to many promising lines of research never even get to that point since they couldn't be profitable. That fact serves to hide the reality from casual observers, which is that the actual research itself has become very cheap, and the state of the art in the lab is moving ever further ahead from the state of the art in the clinic. Any line of work using the tools of the biotechnology industry has experienced the same curve in costs and capabilities over the past few decades as computing and telecommunications, the result of advances in materials science and processing power. This is a time to aim high.

You might recall that Sean Parker is funding cancer immunotherapy at a fairly large scale, and then there is the Gates Foundation, funding work on a number of infectious diseases, Paul Allen's large-scale funding for mapping a range of human biochemistry, the Google founders' Calico Labs venture, Larry Ellison's past funding for aging research, and so forth. Where disease and the cause of disease is the target most of these are neither ambitious nor visionary exercises, however. While they bring a large amount of money to the table, very few manage to blaze a new path with that funding. They largely follow the current mainstream strategy, fund later stage scientific work, more development than research, and tend to only incrementally improve outcomes. The Ellison Medical Foundation essentially become a small arm of the National Institute on Aging, for example, and we can point to nothing that changed greatly as a result of those years of additional budget. There is a good chance, given the way things tend to go, that Calico and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy will end up at the same destination - incremental increases in funding for existing projects, no meaningful change in strategies that have produced only small gains over the years, no bold steps, no radical advances. It often seems that the more funding one can bring to bear, the more one is constrained to do nothing new with it. To be sure more funding for research is better than less funding for research, but there is a very large difference between investing intelligently and taking calculated risks for a shot at large gains in medical capabilities and simply investing in the current mainstream, whatever that might be. Real, radical progress and the foundation for the next generation of medicine tends to come from the fringes of a field, not the established institutions.

The Zuckerberg vision is a good one, but we shall see how that translates to reality in the years ahead. There is only one way to bring an end to heart disease and the other diseases of aging, and that is to control the causes of aging - to repair or make irrelevant the molecular damage that gives rise to degeneration, decline, and disease, as outlined in the SENS proposals. I will be pleasantly surprised to see that approach showing up anywhere in practice in this venture, however, as it isn't yet reflected in the mainstream consensus on strategy in the research community. The bold visions of past ventures largely gave way to work that was prosaic and mediocre in ambition, subsumed by the short-term targets of small, incremental gains. So on the one hand I'm not optimistic that this, rather than any other past or existing venture, will be the one to break the mold. On the other hand there's a lot to cheer about when people with access to world-changing levels of resources acknowledge that ending disease is a viable goal for this age of biotechnology, and set their sights on it, in word at least. That is a part of the persuasion that must continue to happen in order to bring ever more resources to bear on progress in medicine, and in order to have a decent chance at realizing the potential of medical science to bring an end to all of the presently common causes of death. The more funding that there is in general, the more of that funding that we can persuade to go towards SENS-like strategies that stand a real chance of producing radical improvements in health and longevity, rather than the mainstream research strategies that largely cannot achieve such goals soon enough to matter.


I've personally lost all hope for big efforts like these.
Only someone with a personal investment in the topic like Thiel will make bold and risky funding choices.

In contrast people like Zuckerberg are a bit too worried about their image and bit too careful with their funds too ever give to SENS for instance.

Posted by: Anonymoose at September 21st, 2016 8:19 PM

I have to say I'm pleased with this announcement. Sure, pity he didn't give anything to SENS. They won't advance science as much as they could have done. But... finally a mainstream* billionaire using his money for a real moonshot.

I was getting tired with the unambitious goals like « ending malaria in Africa » which never tackled the bigger issues.

*(I'm excluding visionaries such as Peter Thiel, the Google guys, and a few others.)

Posted by: Spede at September 22nd, 2016 4:27 AM

Bill Gates is funding development of a CRISPR gene drive to wipe out a species of malaria transmitting mosquito. If sucessful, I hope he will then perhaps realize that the elderly are suffering too.

Posted by: Jim at September 22nd, 2016 5:35 AM

Maybe he isn't suffering enough from the effects of old age, so it hasn't yet dawned on him.

I wonder how much pain and debility it will take to wake him up.

Posted by: Spede at September 22nd, 2016 8:41 AM

I wish them luck. I've always wondered why be a wealthy person and use your funds to put forward changes that will only shave a couple years off the introduction of technologies when you can "bet big" and possible have a sizeable impact.

I was saddened how Zuckerberg's contribution to public schools was largely wasted, because of teachers unions opposition to any kind of merit-based system. Hopefully this will go better. If SENS approaches have success and make enough waves perhaps they might pop up on Zuckerberg's radar and get funded.

Posted by: KC at September 27th, 2016 5:55 PM
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