A few days ago, we reviewed some of the fantastical predictions made by Silicon Valley at the FutureMed conference about what the future of health care will look like—things like viruses that cure cancer, real-time brain monitoring, and dogs that sniff out disease. Some of these predictions are tantalizingly close, if only scientists had the funding to explore them. So a large swath of the Silicon Valley elite—Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, and Yuri Milner—are teaming up to give $3 million each to 11 scientists working on "research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life."
The winners of the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are working on everything from targeted cancer gene therapy to mapping the genetics of neural circuits and behavior. They won’t conduct their research in secret; as part of the prize, the scientists will be invited to present their findings in public lectures and supporting materials. Going forward, Brin, Zuckerberg, and the others have pledged to dole out five annual prizes worth $3 million each. The prize winners will be instrumental in picking future recipients.
"For me, the reason why I’m excited about this is because I think that our society needs more heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers," said Zuckerberg in a press conference. Wojcicki questioned: "To me it always seemed like there’s a real tragedy in that we all go to the doctor, we’ve all taken Tylenol and Advil and some of us are sicker and take other medications. But did you ever think about who invented that?"
There is no particular significance to the $3 million prize amount, said Milner. "$3 million sounded like a good round number. There’s no magic to it. I think at this point in time it’s the largest prize in science."
Among the work being funded is a project from Cornelia Bargmann that could help us understand how the brain gets and processes environmental information. Another scientist—Shinya Yamanaka—took the Nobel Prize in 2012 for discovering that mature cells can be turned into stem cells, a discovery that one day could allow patients to create new tissue from their own cells to combat disease. Lewis Cantley discovered an enzyme (PI-3-kinase) that has a critical role in both cancer and insulin signaling—and in turn, our understanding of diabetes. We could go on.
The point is that these scientists are working on projects that could one day lengthen human life. Maybe futurist Peter Schwartz’s prediction that "at least one human alive in the year 2000 will still be alive in 2150" isn’t as far-out as it once seemed. In part, that might depend on whether today’s scientists can continue to get funding—and whether their findings can be converted into cheap and widely available treatments.
So who are these brilliant scientists that working on world-changing research? From the Breakthrough Prize website:
Cornelia I. Bargmann
Torsten N. Wiesel Professor and Head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at the Rockefeller University. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules.
Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Anthony B. Evnin Professor of Genomics at Princeton University.
For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms.
Lewis C. Cantley
Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor and Director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism.
Professor of Molecular Genetics at Hubrecht Institute.
For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer.
Titia de Lange
Leon Hess Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Cell Biology and Genetics, and Director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at the Rockefeller University.
For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.
Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Senior Deputy Director for Basic Sciences at Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego.
For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.
Eric S. Lander
President and Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Professor of Biology at MIT. Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.
For the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes, and enabling their application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical and sequence maps of the human genome.
Charles L. Sawyers
Chair, Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For cancer genes and targeted therapy.
Director of the Ludwig Center and Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes.
Robert A. Weinberg
Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT and Director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology. Member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
For characterization of human cancer genes.
Director of Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University. Senior Investigator, Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco.
For induced pluripotent stem cells.