Sep 22 2016

Is Mark Zuckerberg Going to Cure Disease?

zuckerberg-chanMark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently announced their initiative to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”

That is a fairly ambitious goal, to say the least, but coming from someone with the resources of Zuckerberg it’s worth exploring what he actually intends to do. To start, he plans on investing $3 billion in medical research. That is a serious investment.

To put that in perspective, however, the NIH 2017 budget is $34.1 billion, an increase of $2 billion over 2016. That includes $1.39 billion for Alzheimer’s research alone. The NIH spent over $500 billion dollars since 2000.

So, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is generous and is likely to have a positive impact, it is hard to imagine how $3 billion will accomplish what $500 billion has not. It’s not as if there aren’t thousands of medical researchers around the world already trying to prevent, cure, and manage disease.

Also, the term “manage” offers significant wiggle room in terms of the stated goal. You could argue that we already “manage” all disease, although some diseases not very well. “Managing” disease is an open-ended goal without any clear definition of what would constitute success. But that is a minor quibble.

I might argue that $3 billion is a figure more appropriately suited to preventing or curing a single disease, rather than all disease. If, for example, he targeted that funding toward Alzheimer’s research, that would more than triple NIH research funding for that disease in the US.

I presume that the $3 billion is just a start, and the initiative will attract further big donations, including from Chan and Zuckerberg. Even still, with such bold claims at a fraction the budget of the NIH, Zuckerberg must think he is going to spend that money much smarter than existing research.

According to the BBC, Zuckerberg outlined three principles to guide his investment:

to bring scientists and engineers together
to build tools and technology that advance research
to grow the movement to fund more science around the world

As an example, he and his wife have already spent $600 million creating what they call the Biohub, which brings together “engineers, computer scientists, biologists, chemists and other innovators.”

That all sounds very encouraging. It sounds like he wants to use the money not necessary on direct medical research but on improving the technology of medical research itself. That is a worthwhile goal. Of course, such research is already built into the institutions of science, but dedicating funding to improving research technology could have far reaching effects.

Specifically, funding research into how best to utilize existing technology, such as AI, to accelerate biomedical research could have significant effects on the overall speed and efficiency of medical research, multiplying the impact of that $3 billion many fold.

I also like his multidisciplinary approach. There is something to be said for putting a lot of smart people from differing backgrounds in the same room and giving them a lot of resources and a goal to work towards.

That is the kind of initiative that is perfect for private investment. It is free from government red tape, or having to justify itself to politicians and administrators. It is also free from the private industry need to make money next quarter.

Conclusion

While the stated goal is both vague and overly ambitious, and the amount of funding is actually modest when compared to existing funding for medical research, I am actually a bit optimistic about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and projects like Biohub.

I like the idea of focusing research on the technology of research itself. I do think there is room for improvement here, and we are far from optimizing the use of the latest technology in guiding research.

I have written here many articles about the current inefficiencies in medical research, such as the excessive number of preliminary studies that are not rigorous enough to actually answer specific medical questions. There is definitely room for improvement.

Of course it is impossible to predict how such initiatives will work out. That is inherent to the very nature of research – studying the unknown. But there are certainly far worse things you could do with an extra $3 billion you have lying around.

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