Mark Zuckerberg And Priscilla Chan Want to Basically End Disease By 2100

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Priscilla Chan and her husband
Mark Zuckerberg announce the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative at
a news conference in San Francisco, California, on Sept.
21, 2016. Beck
Diefenbach / Reuters

ID: 9660571

When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan welcomed their
daughter, Max, into the world in December 2015, it was a birth
announcement with a bang: They unveiled the Chan Zuckerberg
Initiative, a limited liability company intended to “advance
human potential and promote equality.” They funded it with 99%
of their Facebook shares, then valued at about $45 billion.

Wednesday, the pair announced the initiative’s biggest
investment to date: at least $3 billion over the next decade to
an all-star team of engineers and scientists who will search
for breakthroughs and develop tools to tackle the most common
diseases — heart disease, cancer, infectious disease, and
neurological disease. The goal? “Cure, prevent, or manage all
diseases by the end of the century.” (No big deal.)

“That doesn’t mean that no one will ever get sick,” Chan said
during an event at UC San Francisco, the university where she
trained to become the pediatrician she is today after meeting
Zuckerberg at Harvard University. “But it does mean our
children and their children could get sick a lot less. And when
they do, we should be able to detect and treat it or at least
manage it as an ongoing condition.”

At times tearing up, Chan cited her difficult experiences as a
doctor — “from making a devastating diagnosis of leukemia, to
sharing with a family they were unable to resuscitate their
child” — in showing her that “we are at the limit of what we
understand about the human body and disease.” “We want to push
back that boundary,” she said.

Curing, preventing, or managing “all diseases” in the
foreseeable future is a lofty goal, to put it mildly, and the
announcement was met with more than a little skepticism.

ALL disease! The scientist and doctor in me is rolling
her eyes SO hard.

— Dorothy N. Charles (@dn_charles)

ID: 9660542

But the couple have assembled an impressive team to at least
attempt this feat. Chan Zuckerberg Science is led by Cori
Bargmann of Rockefeller University, whose work has investigated
how neurons and genes affect behavior. And the first effort is
a $600 million, 10-year “biohub” at UC San Francisco that will
bring together researchers from that university, as well as
nearby UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Leading it are two
prominent Bay Area scientists: Stanford bioengineer and
physicist Stephen Quake and UC San Francisco’s Joe DeRisi, who
studies the underlying genetics of infectious diseases. Their
initial focus, they said, will be on constructing a “cell
atlas” — a characterization of all the cell types in the human
body — and developing new ways to detect, respond to, treat,
and prevent infectious disease.

Programmers will work alongside scientists on these kinds of
problems, an interdisciplinary approach that fits Zuckerberg
and Chan’s respective backgrounds. Zuckerberg described his own
optimism for the future as rooted in an “engineering mindset.”
“It’s this belief you can take any system, no matter how
complex,” he said, “and make it much, much better than it is
today, whether it’s code, hardware, biology, a company, an
education system, a government — anything.”

This initiative isn’t the couple’s first contribution to health
and medicine. Not far from the site of Wednesday’s event is San
Francisco’s public hospital, which was recently renamed the
Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center
after Chan and Zuckerberg donated
$75 million toward its equipment and technology last year.
Last year, Facebook
said its engineers had developed personalized-learning
software for a public school system. And Chan is opening a
free school in
East Palo Alto with a dual focus on health and education.

The couple’s philanthropy efforts have been controversial in
the past; in 2010, they donated $100 million to Newark, New
Jersey public schools, an effort that critics
described as poorly managed.
Zuckerberg defended it.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg and Chan stressed that they had done
their homework over the last two years, “talking to scientists
ranging from Nobel Prize laureates to graduate students,” as
Chan put it. “We’ve learned a lot and we know we have a lot
more to learn.”

At the end of the event, they got an endorsement from someone
who’s been in their shoes: Bill Gates, whose foundation with
his wife Melinda Gates has also backed projects tackling
everything from public health to education. “This idea of
curing and preventing all diseases by the end of the century,”
Gates said, “that’s very bold, very ambitious, and I can’t
think of a better partnership to take it on.”

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