News and analysis
December 08, 2014

Microsoft Co-Founder Pledges $100-Million for Cell Research

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Paul Allen

Hoping to spur more advances in disease research, Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, announced Monday a $100-million gift to form an institute that will investigate the workings of human cells.

The gift comes soon after Mr. Allen committed $100-million in October, both personally and through his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to help battle Ebola.

The new Allen Institute for Cell Science will use advanced microscopy, recent findings in genetics, and predictive modeling to increase understanding of how cells work, and more important, what happens when something goes wrong with them, leading to disease.

"We’ll be studying the role cells play in all kinds of diseases, including arthritis, cancer, and heart disease," says Rick Horwitz, executive director of the planned institute.

Mr. Allen "understands that the behavior of cells is actually the language of biomedical research," says Mr. Horwitz. "He has made a unique gift that allows us to develop and maintain a strong focus on disease research at the basic science level."

To broaden the scope of research now being done on cells, the institute will use a team approach involving large-scale investigations conducted by groups of researchers. "We’ll be more like a biotech company than a project run by a principal investigator," says Mr. Horwitz.

The institute will also create pluripotent stem cells — regular cells in the human body that are coaxed into development — to develop models that will ostensibly offer clues as to how and why genetic alterations and cellular malfunctions occur, Mr. Horwitz adds.

"We already know what most cells do and are beginning to understand which specific genes are expressed in different cell types," he says. "What we don’t know is how the expression of particular genes and the environments of cells generate different cellular behavior in normal cells. Our goal is to ramp up basic science knowledge in this area, with an eye on diseases all the way through the process."

Research Gifts

The gift comes at a time when federal funding for basic research has been flat for years, Mr. Horwitz adds. Even though the institute will not, at least initially, engage in so-called translational research — translating basic research into practical applications that could lead to new drugs — its work could prove highly useful in battling disease.

"Translational research works most effectively when there is a pillar of basic understanding of the cell in normal and pathological states," Mr. Horwitz says.

Mr. Allen has made large contributions to scientific research in the past. In 2003, he founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science and seeded it with a $100-million gift. Set up originally to extend for five years, the brain science institute is still in operation, thanks to private and public support. Mr. Allen made an additional gift of $300-million to the organization in 2012.

Similarly, plans call for the Allen Institute for Cell Science to operate for five years, though Mr. Horwitz says it could continue beyond that. "We’ll take a look around year three to see what kind of progress we’ve made, and then determine our course from there," he says.

The institute, slated to open in the fall of 2015, will be housed in a 270,000-square-foot complex now being built in Seattle. In the meantime, the research center will begin its work on a small scale by next summer.