Paul Allen creates new brain project with $100 million
Seattle Times business reporter
Billionaire Paul Allen, in his largest upfront charitable commitment ever, today will announce that he is giving $100 million to start a nonprofit research center that will try to create a definitive map of the mouse brain that researchers can use for further discoveries.
The Microsoft co-founder is creating the Allen Institute for Brain Science, in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.
The money will be used to try to build the "Allen Brain Atlas" to show how a list of 30,000 genes can be transformed into a circuit board with a trillion cells.
By mapping cells from the mouse brain and making it publicly available to researchers around the world with "minimum encumbrance," the Allen Institute says it will become a springboard others can use to advance knowledge. Allen says he hopes the center will kick-start more efficient research into how brains develop, learn, form emotions or become damaged by disorders such as Alzheimer's, depression or stroke.
Allen's institute, which expects to tap other donors and compete for government funding, is the offspring of two years of planning with leaders in genomics, neuroscience and psychology. The group of advisers includes the co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson; psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University; and brain researcher Marc Tessier-Lavigne, formerly of Stanford University.
"This is the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project," said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, an agency that gives $1 billion a year in grants, who came to Seattle six weeks ago to learn about the atlas. "This is what we call in our business 'Big Science.'
"This would have gotten done eventually over 20 years, but this greatly intensifies the focus and accelerates the pace of this knowledge into a few years."
The atlas is such an audacious undertaking that even at the speed of today's computing, it is expected to take three to five years to complete. It will generate more raw data than appears today on the entire World Wide Web.
Because mice and humans have 99 percent of the same genes, scientists hope the map of the mouse brain will provide a template for comparison with the human brain.
The project is starting with a team of 25 scientists from biotech and high tech and is intended to grow into a long-lasting center for brain research in Seattle, with about 100 people over the next several years. Besides computerized genome analysis, it is expected to house wet-lab research, such as how stem cells develop neurons that make the brain.
The atlas project's first director, Dr. Mark Boguski, said his group will make discoveries of its own but will create so much data that no one organization can take advantage of it all.
"Isaac Newton said, in one of his humbler moments, 'If I've seen further, it's only by standing on the shoulders of giants,' " said Boguski, a world leader in using computers to crunch genetic information. "We're trying to build a giant that other people can stand on and look further from, in terms of therapeutics."
The researchers will start with the complete map of the human genome and combine it with research that has linked genes to diseases like Alzheimer's. Scientists also have begun learning about the brain's "plasticity," which shows how learning occurs and how declines might be reversed.
By combining disciplines, Allen said in a statement, "We believe this is a historic opportunity."
Plans for the institute began in July 2001, when Allen flew experts to Seattle for a daylong session on how to make an impact on brain research.
Allen and others say they agreed from the start that it must be a philanthropic effort to put information in the public domain and to have a faster and greater impact than a single company or institution could have.
Boguski, who's affiliated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was the lone local researcher at the meetings. He became a Vulcan employee in March and began recruiting staff to establish a culture of "biotech-like efficiency" and urgency at the institute.
The group includes a molecular biologist with experience in venture capital and business deal-making; a senior scientist from Celera Genomics, the company that worked on the Human Genome Project; and a technology developer to make the genetic data decipherable online.
The institute also represents major steps for biomedical research and Seattle. The region is internationally known for its research in cancer, genomics, immunology, heart disease and infectious disease, largely at the University of Washington and "The Hutch."
But the needs of neuroscience are particularly glaring. Neurological disorders afflict more than 50 million Americans, about five times the number affected by cancer.
The institute also represents a new thrust for Allen's philanthropy. The billionaire has six charitable foundations that focus on health and human services, medical research, forest protection, visual and performing arts, music, and technology to help children learn.
Including the $100 million gift, Allen has given away about $600 million of his $20 billion fortune, most of it in the Northwest. He spent $240 million on Experience Music Project. Last year, his largest gifts for medical research were $2 million to The Hutch, $1 million to the UW and $250,000 to Harborview Medical Center.
The donation could blunt some of Allen's critics, who see him as a landlord in his quest to redevelop 50 acres of South Lake Union into a biotech mecca. Allen, a survivor of Hodgkin's disease, has invested in many biotech companies, such as Dendreon and Seattle Genetics, that are working to develop profitable cancer drugs.
But some would like to see him invest in riskier startups, those that need money to find out whether less-proven research can become a business.
But even without investing in startups, Allen's philanthropy could drive the biotech industry, which often harvests basic discoveries to develop drugs.
Tessier-Lavigne and Boguski said they expect biotech and pharmaceutical companies will be interested in the atlas.
Insel, of the National Institute of Mental Health, said he's enthusiastic about the project and that it should be competitive for federal grants.
"In the next five years, I see Seattle really leading a wave in 21st-century biotech," Boguski said. "We have tremendous local resources here."
Leroy Hood, a pioneer of high-speed gene-sequencing machines who now leads the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, said the Allen Institute is tackling an "extremely daunting" task. But he said it will have more cash to start than any of Seattle's other research institutes had.
"Any new nonprofit that has an excellent vision and the resources to back it up adds enormous value to the region," Hood said. "It will really be able to attract first-rate people."
Biotech pioneer Steve Gillis agreed: "It's always good when somebody votes with their checkbook on creating a center of excellence in Seattle."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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