Applying A Silicon Valley Approach To Jump-Start Medical Research

Oct 25, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 6:46 am

Cori Bargmann's new job description includes "to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century." That's quite a lofty goal.

Bargmann is a neuroscientist and president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the joint venture of pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. The couple pledged $3 billion to solve major medical problems by helping scientists and engineers collaborate long term, over 25, 50, even 80 years.

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spoke with Bargmann about what it's like to start a project you might not live to see the end of, and why the complexity of science today demands collaboration. Here are some highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

On why medical researchers need to collaborate with engineers

As a neuroscientist, I see tremendous unmet needs in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease and ALS. [Also] diseases that affect young adults like schizophrenia, and learning disorders and autism that affect children. So I can look across the whole field and think of ways that we would like to be able to address these problems.

The problem with studying the brain is that it's really complicated. There are 86 billion neurons in your brain, and all of these nerve cells are processing information and sending and receiving that information 10 times a second.

You really need a computer and the patience and boredom tolerance that a computer and an engineer can bring to the problem to try to map out the flow of information through such an incredibly complex structure.

On the foundation's project to create an atlas of cells in the human body

We know that there are trillions of cells in the human body, but we don't know what kinds they are, how many of each kind they are, exactly where they all are. We have a general view, sort of like an old Rand McNally Atlas. What we want is the kind of high-resolution house-to-house map you would get off of Google Maps these days.

If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative were doing this alone, it might take a very long time to make a human cell atlas. But fortunately there's momentum around this idea in the world. With that, I think we might realistically accomplish it within 10 years. We'll then have that framework for everyone to build on, just like everyone now builds on the Human Genome Project.

On the pace of science and what can be accomplished in 80 years

Science is an enterprise where we build on the progress of the past, and hope that, in the future, people will build on our accomplishments. It's like a great medieval cathedral that may have been started in 1,000 AD and not been finished for 500 years. The original architects and the people who built the foundations were dead by the time the last Gothic spire was up or the last gargoyle was carved.

The great thing about science is that there might be individual moments of fantastic discovery — the equivalent of some beautiful stained glass window. But every brick in the foundation is important, and we hope that as we learn things, we're creating the foundation for future knowledge as well.

Eighty years ago, the first antibiotic was developed. Before then, the four major killers in the world were infectious disease. Today, none of them are even in the top 10 because of those antibiotics. 50 years ago, when Eisenhower had a heart attack he was put on bed rest. Today we know about controlling blood pressure, have statins to keep cholesterol down, have bypass surgery, and even heart transplants. We can keep people alive and healthy for a much longer time.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On this program, we talk to a lot of people with big jobs, and today we're adding to that list the neuroscientist Cori Bargmann. Her job description is to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century. Cori Bargmann is the new president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. They've set up shop in Silicon Valley so they can bring together scientists and engineers to speed biomedical research. I asked Bargmann if her timeframe is realistic, and she said, consider what medicine was like 80 years ago.

CORI BARGMANN: So 80 years ago, almost exactly, the very first antibiotic was developed. And before then, the four major killers in the world were infectious diseases. None of those four classes of disease are even in the top 10 anymore because of the development of antibiotics. Now, look back 50 years at what's happened at heart disease since then. Fifty years ago, when Eisenhower had a heart attack, he was put on bedrest. Now we know about controlling blood pressure. We have the statins to keep cholesterol down. And we have bypass surgery, even heart transplants now that are keeping people alive and healthy for a much longer time.

SIEGEL: Well, given the breadth of your mission, how do you set priorities as to what's the best way to spend money, given all the areas where you could spend it?

BARGMANN: We're looking at areas that other people are not focusing on as much, and we're trying to think of the tools that would move science forward.

SIEGEL: But in your own work as a neuroscientist, have you found yourself in situations where you thought, if I only had an engineer, I might be able to figure out X or Y or address this problem from a different perspective?

BARGMANN: Yes. As a neuroscientist, I see tremendous unmet needs in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease and ALS, in diseases that affect young adults like schizophrenia, which is a terrible disease where we can do far too little, and also learning disorders and autism that affect children. So I can look across the whole field and think of ways that we would like to be able to address these problems. The problem with studying the brain is that it's really complicated.

There are 86 billion neurons in your brain, and all of these nerve cells are processing information and sending out chemical and electrical information and receiving that information and passing it back and forth 10 times a second. You can get a general feeling for that as a human being, but you really need a computer and the patience and boredom tolerance that a computer and an engineer can bring to the problem to try to map out the flow of information through such an incredibly complex structure.

And one of the big problems in brain science right now is trying to move forward to understanding how information is being propagated through millions of neurons in fractions of a second to allow us to perceive and remember and feel.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that the sheer computing power of the computer with the engineer might be able to frame or address problems that we just can't handle.

BARGMANN: We're becoming better and better in science at looking at complex problems and looking at them in detail. A few years ago, someone could maybe listen to a single nerve cell in the brain at a time. Now it's possible to listen to a thousand cells in a single brain at the same time. But that means you have to filter out a thousand pieces of information. That complexity that comes up as we look at more complex biological systems is where we need some new approaches and we need computational biologists and engineers to help us think about them.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The first big project that you're launching is, as I understand it, a cell atlas. Can you help us understand what the cell atlas is and how it might lead to therapies or cures?

BARGMANN: The purpose of the human cell atlas is to generate a complete inventory of the cells in the human body and to use that to study all kinds of normal healthy processes and what goes wrong in every possible human disease. We know that there are trillions of cells in the human body, but we don't know what kinds there are, how many of each kind there are, exactly where they all are. We have a general view, like an old Rand McNally Atlas, of cells in the body where what we want to have is the kind of high-resolution, house-to-house map you would get off of Google Maps these days.

SIEGEL: Well, to return then to the 80-year horizon that the overall project is working toward, how long a project is that, do you think? I mean, to complete a cell atlas - is that 10 years? Is it 20 years?

BARGMANN: If the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative were doing it alone, it might take us a very long time to make a human cell atlas. Fortunately, there's momentum around this idea around the world. With that, I think we might realistically accomplish that within 10 years and then have that framework for everyone to build on just as everyone now builds on the human genome.

SIEGEL: Cori Bargmann. Thanks a lot for talking with us today.

BARGMANN: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Cori Bargmann is president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. For the record, NPR produces and is paid for live video streams that appear on Facebook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.