Paul Allen Announces Funding for Research at the Frontiers of Bioengineering and Systems Biology

March 24, 2016

By Bio-IT World Staff

March 24, 2016 | Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and founder of three Seattle-headquartered research institutes―the Allen Institutes for Brain Science, Cell Science, and Artificial Intelligence―this week announced a $100 million commitment to a new scientific grant program, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. Allen made the announcement yesterday afternoon at the headquarters of the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by Tom Skalak, the new Executive Director of the Frontiers Group, as well as Ralph Cicerone, Dan Mote, and Victor Dzau, the respective Presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

The Frontiers Group is designed to fund speculative, early-stage projects with high potential impact. In an address at the D.C. event, Skalak applauded Allen for having “the courage to remain at the very edge,” and said that the Frontiers Group was asking researchers: “What is the dark matter of bioscience? What are the unsolved mysteries and the hard problems?”

Allen and Skalak also announced the program’s inaugural grant recipients, who will receive a combined $66 million, most of it directly from the Frontiers Group. Six million dollars of that amount is being given to individual researchers, in a continuation of the Allen Distinguished Investigators Awards given annually since 2010, which had previously been awarded in a specific research area each year. The remaining $60 million will be used to found two Allen Discovery Centers within universities; each will receive $20 million from the Frontiers Group over eight years, and an additional $10 million from philanthropic partners.

While the awards are meant to spur neglected research areas and ideas in the proof-of-concept phase, most of the recipients are highly respected mid-to-late-career researchers. Skalak said that one theme that emerged from an eight-month listening tour preceding the announcement of the Frontiers Group was that even established scientists often have trouble finding funds for speculative work. For instance, Jennifer Doudna, considered a likely Nobel Prize contender for her central role in discovering the powerful gene editing technique called CRISPR, was awarded one of the inaugural $1.5 million grants. Doudna has already received a multi-million-dollar Breakthrough Prize for this work, and further gene editing research at UC Berkeley, where she is a faculty chair, can call on the resources of a $10 million gift from philanthropist Li Ka-shing. However, Doudna’s Frontiers Group prize is earmarked for riskier spinoff research, including the discovery of new CRISPR-related techniques that attack RNA rather than editing the native genome, and the creation of antiviral systems connected to CRISPR.

A second Distinguished Investigator award has been given to Jim Collins of MIT, a synthetic biologist whose work engineering bacterial genomes has produced, among other things, a company called Synlogic that reprograms human gut bacteria to deliver medicines. Collins’ award will support research into engineering bacteria to fight drug-resistant pathogens. Two more individual awards went to Ethan Bier of UC San Diego, who will explore the genetic basis of physiological development; and Bassem Hassan of the Institute of the Brain and Spinal Cord in Paris, who will investigate how the early development of neurons affects behavior.

Meanwhile, the creation of two Allen Discovery Centers represents a large, multi-year commitment to complex projects in biological modeling. At Stanford University, Markus Covert will lead a center to model interactions among tens of thousands of immune cells, to understand how complexes of cells react to infection and, in turn, how pathogens develop resistance to our immune systems. At Tufts University, Michael Levin will head a group focused on the “morphogenetic code,” which governs how tissues are formed and repaired, both in embryonic development and during the suppression of tumors.

The Allen Discovery Centers mark Paul Allen’s first attempts to set up an ongoing research infrastructure outside his hometown of Seattle. Both new centers have a similar computational and systems biology focus to the existing Allen Institutes, where researchers are pursuing projects like a complete cell atlas of the brain.