Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a new initiative on Wednesday to cure all diseases. (What’d you accomplish today?) Chan and Zuckerberg will invest $3 billion over the next decade to help scientists around the world cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of this century.
Chan told the audience in San Francisco that their goal was “to cure, prevent, or manage all disease within our children’s lifetime. That doesn’t mean that no one will ever get sick, but it does mean our children and their children should get sick a lot less. And when they do, we should be able to detect or treat it — or at least manage it as an ongoing condition.”
It’s ambitious, but Chan, Zuckerberg, and their team seem to think it’s reasonable. And with their daughter at almost one year old (and not getting any younger), they are motivated to see it through. The money comes from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; back in December, Zuckerberg and Chan liquidated 99 percent of their Facebook shares and funneled the money into their new, shared life mission.
The initiative contains several discrete projects, the first of which will be the Biohub. Biohub brings experts in engineering, computer science, biology, and chemistry under one roof in San Francisco, and Zuck and Chan are giving $600 million of the $3 billion to make it happen.
Biohub’s own two projects are, for now, a “cell atlas,” which aims to map every cell type in the human body. “It requires biologists, engineers and technologists working together,” Biohub states on its website. The idea is that cross-disciplinary work has always spurred medical advances, and so facilitating it should encourage more of the same. Scientific roadblocks have been responsible for engineering breakthroughs, which in turn lead to scientific and medical advances. Biohub’s other project seeks to resolve all infectious diseases, including SARS, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika.
At Biohub and with their other initiatives, Chan and Zuckerberg hope to defeat the four biggest disease-related killers on earth. “Today, just four kinds of diseases cause the majority of deaths,” Zuckerberg wrote. Those four kinds of diseases are heart diseases, infectious diseases, cancers, and neurological diseases. “We can make progress on all of them with the right technology.”
In his speech, he specified the technologies he had in mind:
It’s pretty easy to imagine what new tools we need to develop to make progress on the four major disease categories that we just talked about. A.I. software to help with imaging the brain, which we really need to push our understanding of to make progress on neurological diseases. Or machine learning, to analyze large databases of cancer genomes. A chip to be able to diagnose any infectious disease. Continuous bloodstream monitoring to be able to identify and catch any disease early. Or a map of all of the different kinds of cell types in our bodies, and the different states they could be in, so that people who are designing drugs can reference that to quickly design something for any given disease that’s out there.
If he and his wife succeed, life expectancy will rise even faster than its relatively linear pace over the past century. And when humans truly merge with the machines, the linear chart could become exponential. Chan and Zuckerberg are hoping to will that new chart into existence, rather than await its arrival — for their daughter’s sake.