Microsoft billionaire takes on cell biology

Allen Institute

Paul Allens latest philanthropic endeavour will be modelled on his successful brain institute.

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Paul Allen plans to pump US$100million into investigating the most basic unit of life the cell.

The Allen Institute for Cell Science, which was launched on 8 December, will be modelled on the Microsoft co-founders Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, which since 2003 has spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a series of brain atlases that have become go-to portals for neuroscientists interested in where particular genes are active or how distant neurons communicate.

As its first project, the latest Allen institute will develop an analogous cell observatory that will display how a cells working parts, such as ribosomes, microtubules and mitochondria, interact and operate over time, says executive director Rick Horwitz. He has shuttered his cell-biology laboratory at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to lead the institute in Seattle, Washington. The 70 or so scientific staff who will join the institute will work together on the overall goals of the observatory to build a global view of the myriad activities inside cells rather than on their own interests. Its going to be much more like the Manhattan Project, Horwitz says.

Allen Institute

Rick Horwitz shut down his lab at the University of Virginia to lead the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Mapping every little detail of every kind of cell is a tall order, even with the backing of the worlds 27th richest person. Our problem is that this thing could blow up on us. It could be very, very big, Horwitz says. Were going to make judicious decisions to try to contain it.

Some of those choices have already been made, after meetings this year with leading cell biologists. The institute will study human induced pluripotent stem cells (cells coaxed into an embryonic stem-cell-like state) as they differentiate in the lab into two cell types: heart-muscle cells called cardiomyocytes; and the epithelial cells that line body cavities. These tissues were chosen as much for their relevance to disease cardiomyocytes malfunction in heart disease and most cancers arise in epithelial tissues as for the ease with which they can be reproducibly generated and grown in the lab.

The institutes plan is to engineer many different cell lines and determine how different cellular components respond to stimuli such as infection or exposure to a drug. These data will then guide the construction of computer models aimed at predicting how cells operate under various conditions, and all the information gained will be made available online. The institute will also distribute its cell lines so that other scientists can build on its work.

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Microsoft billionaire takes on cell biology

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