Stanford part of Bay Area Biohub collaboration for health research

Stanford faculty will be part of a new collaboration created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to study biotechnology, together with UC Berkeley and UCSF.

Stanford will be one of three Bay Area universities – along with the University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley – to participate in a new bioscience collaboration funded through a $600 million commitment by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Stephen Quake

Stephen Quake, professor of bioengineering and of applied physics, will co-lead the Biohub. (Image credit: Tyler Mallory)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative after the birth of their daughter in 2015. On Wednesday the Initiative announced plans for a broader focus on science, its second major initiative, alongside work to improve education for all students. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s goal is to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century by accelerating basic science research. The Initiative seeks to support new ways of enabling scientists and engineers to work together to build new tools that will empower the whole scientific community and advance progress.

The new Bay Area research collaboration, called the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, is the first scientific investment by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It will include a combination of research space focused on biotechnology tools development, grants and large-scale collaborative projects.

“The Biohub will be the sinew that ties together these three institutions in the Bay Area like never before,” said Stephen Quake, Stanford professor of bioengineering and of applied physics, who will co-lead the Biohub with Joseph DeRisi, professor and chair of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.

A collaborative approach to research

The Biohub will be an independent research organization with two locations: a headquarters in the San Francisco Mission Bay district and an outstation at Stanford known as the Stanford Biohub. These Hubs will establish shared biotechnology platforms and make them available to members of the collaborating universities.

“This initiative will dramatically improve our ability to conduct fundamental research at the intersection of biology and engineering that can lead to important applications for human health,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who is also a neuroscientist. “We are grateful for the investment by Mark and Priscilla in both sophisticated tools and an unprecedented Bay Area-wide university collaboration that will enable groundbreaking discovery.”

Former Stanford President John Hennessy was instrumental in helping establish the initiative, working closely with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative on its inception.  He will serve on the board in his personal capacity as a scientist and technologist.

“The vision for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Biohub capitalizes on the strengths of our Bay Area universities, and also makes a major investment in early-stage research of the type that cannot be readily funded elsewhere,” Hennessy said. “It is large-scale collaboration at its best, and with tremendous promise for solving the world’s greatest health challenges.”

In referring to Hennessy’s role in the unprecedented three-university collaboration, Zuckerberg said, “John ran so hard at this problem to make sure all of the challenges were addressed before his term ended.”

Resident Biohub scientists will work on two large-scale overarching projects: The Cell Atlas, a comprehensive dataset cataloging all the biologically significant characteristics of every cell type in the body, and an Infectious Disease Project devoted to tackling microbial diseases, including emerging biothreats and pandemics.

Technology to improve human health

Each of the three partner schools has a long history of developing biomedical technologies, with combined strengths in medicine, engineering and the basic sciences. New opportunities created by the Biohub will focus the universities’ individual strengths around the common goal of developing technologies to cure and prevent human disease, said Tessier-Lavigne.

“The Biohub will provide many new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research. “By bringing together basic biomedical scientists, engineers and clinician investigators from across the three universities, the Biohub will greatly expand the development of new technologies needed to tackle major health challenges.”

Quake said the Biohub’s focus on technology makes sense, given the history of technological advances that have helped scientists understand, treat and prevent disease. In his own lab, Quake developed a platform called microfluidics, which can sequence miniscule amounts of DNA or analyze molecules within drops of liquid. It has greatly accelerated research into the genetic basis of disease and underlies lifesaving biomedical assays.

DeRisi, who earned his PhD in biochemistry at Stanford, has developed genomic technologies for studying infectious diseases such as malaria and viruses, and diseases of unknown origin. His technologies have identified drug targets for infectious diseases, with drug candidates now in clinical trials.

Other advances to come out of the collaborating universities include recombinant DNA, genomics platforms, and CRISPR/Cas9, among many others. Combining the strengths of the universities will accelerate the pace of new, equally groundbreaking technologies.

“With this extraordinary commitment, we are closer than ever to beating disease,” said Lloyd B. Minor, dean of the School of Medicine. “These resources will support the kind of curiosity-driven basic research that has led to history’s most important health advances – and the remarkably talented minds behind it.”

Supporting people

The Biohub will fund Chan Zuckerberg investigators to support high-impact projects that are too exploratory to receive government support. The competition for these slots will open to faculty at the three universities in October. Selections will be made by a panel of independent scientists, probably by the end of the year, Quake and DeRisi said. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will not be involved in reviewing and selecting investigators.

“We’re going to look for people who are doing things that will change the world,” said Quake, who is also Lee Otterson Professor in the School of Engineering. The streamlined application process will be based on an outstanding idea and a record of success, with the idea that people who have done well before tend to do well again, Quake said.

Three Biohub programs focus on fostering the careers of young scientists. One is a fellowship program to support outstanding recent graduates that gives those scientists a boost to their early careers. Quake added that the fellowships will keep elite young scientists in the Bay Area ecosystem rather than losing their expertise to other universities.

The Biohub’s scientific staff will include group leader positions that provide a new career track to young scientists who want to focus on research rather than on the academic pressures of teaching or writing grants.

Finally, some investigator slots will be set aside for assistant professors, who often struggle to compete with more senior scientists for grants.

Stanford faculty will be part of a new collaboration created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to study biotechnology, together with UC Berkeley and UCSF.