An Ambitious Science Hub's New Leader Explains Its Bid to Find All Cures

Tyler Mallory

Joseph DeRisi, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the U. of California at San Francisco, is one of two leaders of the Biohub, a new research lab funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.
October 04, 2016

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, and his wife, the pediatrician Priscilla Chan, announced plans last month to spend $3 billion over the next decade fighting diseases. Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan said they hoped their project — including a $600-million investment in the Biohub, a new physical lab space for universities in the Bay Area — would help scientists and engineers cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.

The Biohub will be led by Joseph DeRisi, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, and Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford University. They’ve named its first two research projects, the Cell Atlas, a database identifying the human body’s cells, and the Infectious Disease Initiative, a pursuit of new approaches and tools for fighting human illnesses. Mr. DeRisi, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose past awards include fellowships from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, spoke with The Chronicle about the project. The following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Tell us about the Biohub. What’s it going to do?

A. The Biohub is going to be a common, novel, and unique platform for people in these three universities — UC-Berkeley, Stanford, and UC-San Francisco — to be able to work and collaborate together. One of the more stunning realizations that the average person might not have is that scientists don’t really have a way of collaborating with each other. You can write an ad hoc grant, and there’s a lot of examples of that, but there’s no formal platform where you can do a project together. There’s no space that’s sort of neutral territory.

And so these kinds of larger collaborations in which space is required, or equipment, generally get mired in the nuances of the bureaucracy of one university or another. The net effect is that it inhibits those

interactions and collaborations.

Q. You appear to be following the model of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, planning to give awards to researchers to do their best work rather than to do specific projects.

A. Absolutely, it’s a feature we borrowed from HHMI and the Packard Foundation as well. What’s a little different here is that we’re agnostic about the field and discipline — any field, any discipline.

Q. Well, it’s bioscience, right?

A. I’m not going to say that it’s biomedical research only. Now we’re called the Biohub, and we’ll have a very strong bias toward biology problems. But who is to say that all of the important findings have to come from biology-oriented disciplines? One of the important aspects that we’ll be promoting is technology and tool development. And that may come from pure computer science. A pure computer scientist would not fare well in an HHMI competition because that’s not a discipline they support. Same with electrical engineering or mechanical engineering.

Q. Any other major differences from the HHMI model?

A. From the investigator standpoint, the funding is completely discretionary. For example if you’re an early-career scientist and starting a family, day-care funding is OK by me — that’s an acceptable expense. That’s something that we saw with the Packard Foundation — they do allow those kinds of expenses, and it was a feature we thought was very important. I don’t think just buying equipment or supplies is necessarily the thing that’s solely going to enable you to do your greatest science.

Q. Any other important differences in operation?

A. We’ve taken ideas from many organizations, and one of the other ways the Biohub is fundamentally different is that it has a physical presence. Now you can say HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus is a physical presence. But it’s not located next to any of the major universities.

By having a physical presence, we're able to establish high-capital technological platforms that folks in the Bay Area can freely come to use.
And so we’ll be able to put together resources that many researchers here would never or rarely have access to.

The other thing that differentiates the Biohub from an organization like HHMI is that we’ll have our own internal research projects. Those research projects are designed and initiated from the leadership, from Steve and me, as we conceive of this thing, the Biohub.

Q. As for the goal of curing, managing, or preventing all diseases within 100 years, is there any disease right now that we can’t at least somehow manage?

A. A good example would be Huntington’s disease — you cannot manage it, you cannot prevent it. It’s a death sentence no matter what you do. However, with ­Crispr technology [the powerful new genome-editing tool] you could actually reverse that genetic lesion, and now someone would not have Huntington’s disease. Genetic disorders are going to be one of the first things that Crispr technology is used for. "Manage" could mean many different things, obviously. It could be "slow down to a crawl." It could be like HIV is now, where curing HIV is really, really hard.

Q. A lot of diseases are an outgrowth of aging — do the Biohub and its projects take that into account?

A. I understand the desire to work on aging and think it’s important work, and there’s some high-profile efforts to do that, focused exclusively on aging. But I don’t think we should work on aging to the exclusion of all else. Historically, infectious diseases killed way more people than dying of natural causes ever will.

Q. As for Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, and other big projects, do you see them as valuable or as an inefficient use of funding?

A. There’s a place for these kinds of dedicated, purpose-driven projects, like the development of immunotherapies, or the Cancer Moonshot, or even in neurodegeneration — there’s specific institutes that do nothing but that. They have their place, and they’re important facets of the research portfolio. The Biohub stands in contrast to some of those efforts because there isn’t a specific mandate for a particular type of research or product-driven, milestone-driven, deliverable-driven kind of science.

Q. Which gets to the question of translation — the job of converting basic-science discoveries into products used by consumers. What’s your sense of the concept of translation in the Biohub?

A. The Biohub will support it where it makes sense. If our discoveries, or technologies we develop, have clear clinical application, and you can save lives tomorrow with them, then we have an obligation to try to push them into translation whenever possible. However, I don’t think that research projects or investigators should be judged on their potential for translation alone.

Q. But how do you guard against the possibility that you’ll discover a lot of great things that nobody will bring across the line into finished products?

A. We do have an obligation to try to translate discoveries where they make sense. But in the history of science, at least in my brief time doing biomedical research in my career, the greatest discoveries, when they happen, there’s no shortage of individuals ready to translate them. And I think Crispr’s a great example of that. They don’t sit around on the shelf. People get busy real quick.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at