The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Is Trying to ‘Cure All Disease.’ What That Means And Are They Aiming At The Right Target?

For the most part everyone is trying to one up and do just a little bit better than their peers. And in the world of billionaires this is taken to the extreme. We have Bills Gates attempting to eradicate Malaria, Yuri Milner is trying to send a spaceship to a star and Elon Musk doing anything and everything including teasing a press conference where he’s going to explain how we’re going to colonize Mars.
But, even with all that said, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have called their shot with a potential to figuratively bat flip to the moon in all of their faces.

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On Wednesday, they announced that their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has pledged $3 billion to basic science over the next 10 years with the goal of curing, preventing or managing all diseases by the end of the century.

You read that right, ALL diseases, every disease, every single one of them.

“We believe we can cure, prevent or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime. It doesn’t mean that no one will get sick, but they should get sick a lot less.” – Dr. Priscilla Chan

That’s a pretty ambitious undertaking by one of the world’s biggest power couples. After pledging 99% of their Facebook shares over their lifetimes (Zuckerberg’s net worth has increased from $45billion to $55.6 billion since that announcement, according to Forbes) the duo has set a master plan in motion.

They believe that there are 4 main categories of disease that their initiative can provide funding towards in order to improve our treatment and understanding of them. The major categories include:

  • Heart Disease
  • Infectious Disease
  • Cancer
  • Neurological Diseases

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And in order to combat this group of the “world’s biggest killers” they will focus on the following 3 goals:

  1. Bringing scientists and engineers together
  2. Building tools and technology
  3. Fueling a movement to encourage more private and public funding of science research around the world

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“We are the limit of what we understand about science and disease,” Chan said on stage. “We want to push back that boundary. By investing in science today, we hope to build a future in which all of our children can live long and rewarding lives.”

They have tasked neurobiologist Cornelia Bargeman with leading their adventure into the new frontier of medicine and how we approach the diseases that have plagued mankind since the beginning of time and all of the new issues that have manifested themselves since.

They believe we have reached the limit of what we understand about disease and without significant funding and the promotion of pushing these boundaries we won’t be able to further our ability to enhance our quality of life as a species.

“Throughout the history of science, most of the major scientific breakthroughs have been preceded by some new tool and technology that allows you to see in new ways.”

“The telescope helped us understand astronomy and the universe, the microscope helped us understand cells and bacteria to help us develop treatments for infectious diseases, while DNA sequencing and editing helps us fight cancer and genetic disorders.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Some of the technological advancements they have outlined are:

  • Artificial Intelligence
    • Assist with brain imaging to combat neurological diseases
  • Machine Learning
    • To analyze cancer genomes (to assist with identification and characterization of cancer cell DNA and RNA)
  • Chips and Blood Monitors
    • To help identify diseases more quickly

In order to accomplish this goal, they have announced that their first investment, in the form of a cool $600 million, will be in BioHub. The plan is for the first time to bring the cream of the crop in terms of scientists and engineers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCSF together.

This group has identified it’s first two major undertakings: The Human Cell Atlas and The Infectious Disease Initiative.

The Human Cell Atlas will tackle mapping out “the internal workings of every cell type in the body,” while The Infectious Disease Initiative will deal with bringing “fresh thinking to drug design, diagnostic tests and vaccines.”

Following this investment they will shift their focus to transformative technology that will be available to scientists everywhere after this first investment has a more limited scope in terms of initial accessibility.

And while on its face this undertaking by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative seems aligned with the goal of creating an improved future for generations to come, but as Ian Sample of the Guardian points out, that their focus may be slightly misguided.

According to reports, 3/4 of the funding pledged by the initiative will be focused on heart disease, cancer and neurological disease, all horrible things that have had a significant impact on us in one form or another. But, these are issues that primarily plague the west and so far plans for the initiative seem to place a lesser emphasis on infectious disease. In addition, these hi-tech solutions tend to lend themselves to more developed countries, an area that already receives 90% of health research funding.

In contrast 90% of the world’s preventable deaths claim lives in developing nations.

So, while this is undoubtedly an amazing attempt by Zuckerberg and Chan to push the limits of what modern medicine can do, they may be skipping a step.

There are people who are dying at a rapid pace every single day from diseases that we have cures and treatments for right now – the problem is that the people who need them just just can’t access.

A real difference could be made with donations directed towards the healthcare infrastructures in places where diseases and problems we brush off are still a major cause of death.

The goal is a better future for the next generations to come and that should include addressing the medical shortcomings all over the globe and developing countries present an opportunity to lay the groundwork.

Regardless of the target, all improvement starts somewhere and whether or not you agree with the initial steps all progress is positive. Let’s just hope an entire section of the population isn’t getting left behind in the process because as we know there’s always enough room.

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You can see the entire presentation here

Shoutout to:
FORBES (Kathleen Chaykowski)
The Guardian (Ian Sample)
The Guardian (Olivia Solon)