A new funding stream will support neurodegeneration research, courtesy of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan. The couple’s philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, opened a request for applications for investigators to join the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network. CZI hopes this interdisciplinary collaborative will bring the collective knowledge of cell biologists from around the world to bear on neurodegenerative disorders.
- Basic research in neurodegeneration gets a philanthropic boost.
- Facebook money aims to attract new researchers, promote cross-disciplinary studies.
- Five-year, $2.5 million grants for young investigators come with community building.
The CZI Initiative hatched when Chan and Zuckerberg committed to giving away 90 percent of their wealth during their lifetimes. In 2016 they launched CZ Science, a $3 billion effort that aims “to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.” To achieve this lofty goal, CZI has taken the long view, promoting basic research, collaborative science, and the development of open-source tools for analyzing and sharing data. CZ Science president and C. elegans researcher Cori Bargmann believes a combination of creativity, openness, and sharable resources made the roundworm a basic biology powerhouse, and she plans to try to replicate the formula in other fields (Bargmann, 2018).
CZI’s earlier projects include the Human Cell Atlas, a collaboration to characterize and map all the cells in the human body, and the CZ Biohub, a research institute and consortium of biologists and engineers based at Stanford, the University of California Berkeley, and UC San Francisco.
The Neurodegeneration Challenge Network is CZI’s first foray into a specific disease-related field. Katja Brose, whom many neurodegeneration researchers know from her work at Cell Press, is science program director at CZI. Brose told Alzforum that CZI chose neurodegeneration because the diseases collectively affect a large and growing number of people and lack effective treatments. Drugs tested in clinical trials have targeted just a few biological mechanisms and have failed, she noted. While genetics and genomics are suggesting new targets, Brose sees gaps in basic understanding of cellular mechanisms of disease, and judges the field ripe for new ideas and approaches.
How does CZI’s approach differ from those of other funders who focus on specific diseases, translational strategies, or potential therapeutic targets? “Our efforts are explicitly intended to cross-cut diseases. We believe there is value in looking across neurodegenerative disorders for common themes and mechanisms,” Brose said.
Academic scientists from anywhere can apply for two types of grant. The CZI Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards offer $2.5 million over five years to investigators who have had their own labs for two to six years. The awards honor Barres, who mentored a generation of young scientists until his death in late December 2017 (Jan 2018 news). CZI Collaborative Science Awards provide smaller, three-year seed grants of up to $1.05 million for interdisciplinary groups of two to four investigators, one of whom must be a practicing physician. These grants will fund high-risk/high-reward pilot projects that span basic science and disease biology.
Through the open RFA, Brose hopes to attract fresh ideas from young scientists just joining the field, and from senior researchers working outside it. CZI is especially interested in innovative, risky projects that might have trouble getting funded elsewhere. Brose mentioned that proposals on non-neuronal contributors to disease, including the immune system, the vasculature, and the gut and microbiome, will be particularly attractive.
As members of the group, grantees will be asked to work collectively to create tools and resources for the wider scientific community. This could include anything from cell or organoid models to advanced imaging techniques for human cells or large “omic” data sets. “We will be looking to develop, optimize, and road-test these tools, though we don’t know yet what they will look like,” said Brose. “It depends on the group that comes together and the projects they initiate.”
In all its programs, CZI promotes open and rapid dissemination of research results and resources. Grantees must agree to freely share data and reagents with the research community, and must submit manuscripts to a preprint server such as the CZI-supported BioRχiv before peer review.
Brose would not say how many grants will be awarded, even ballpark. That seems contingent on the quality of proposals.
Applications for young investigator awards must be in by April 17; finalists will be interviewed in September. Funds are expected to flow in December 2018 at the earliest. Letters of intent for the collaborative award are due April 3. For details, see the network's webpage.—Pat McCaffrey.
- Bargmann C. How the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative plans to solve disease by 2100. Nature. 2018 Jan 4;553(7686):19-21. PubMed.
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