With a gift of $100 million, philanthropist/Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen today launched a new research institute to investigate and model the behavior and complex living machinery of human cells.
The Allen Institute for Cell Science says its inaugural project will be creating the Allen Cell Observatory. Researchers plan to produce a dynamic, visual database and animated models of cell parts in action, with the goal of enabling predictions about cell behaviors, thus accelerating cell biology knowledge as well as disease research.
The cell science institute will begin by studying the transition of induced pluripotent stem cells into heart muscle and epithelial cells, creating computational models of the cells’ behavior as the first part of the larger visual database.
“We wanted to choose for our first cell type something that is really, really going to work for sure, and that the research is there so that we can do the experiments that we want to do,” Alan F. (Rick) Horwitz, Ph.D., executive director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science, told GEN. “Epithelial gets you into the cancer field, and heart has its own issues, especially in regenerative biology. But the reason underlying their selection also is that the change from the undifferentiated stem cell into cardiac myocytes is really well studied. It's really well-characterized. It's reproducible, and it's robust.”
Down the road, he added, the institute is interested in studying immune cells and smooth muscle cells—groups of cells that are expected to yield new insights both in vascular biology and in cancer research.
Cell science will be located within the brain institute’s space, now scattered among four Seattle-area buildings—a cluster to be consolidated next year when construction is completed on a single seven-story, 270,000-square-foot building in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
The cell science institute will draw at first upon the brain science institute’s administrative infrastructure, such as finance and human resources functions, as well as opportunities for intellectual exchange among researchers. Over time, the cell science institute can be expected to collaborate with the brain institute on research, though not immediately.
“There's no question that down the road, we will interact,” Dr. Horwitz said. “They've been studying gene expression and connection, so they’re going to have the assays and the gene information so that we can start looking at what the structural and functional correlates are that determine that. There is potential for serious synergy there. But it's just probably not for year one.”
Allan Jones, Ph.D., CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, told GEN Allen’s fascination with complexity in biology prompted him and brain institute leadership two years ago to begin exploring whether they could create a similar research institute focused on cells. A meeting with experts last year convinced the Allen institute that it would need a leader well-versed in connecting molecular activity to cellular behavior.
They found that leader in Dr. Horwitz, who served for 10 years as the director of the Cell Migration Consortium, an NIH-funded multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary collaboration for studying cell migration. Allen institute leaders concluded his background bringing the consortium’s resources together in a web-based portal complemented their vision for the cell science institute, Dr. Jones said—as would Dr. Horwitz’s experience. It includes spending the past 15 years as a Harrison Distinguished Professor and University Professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where his lab investigated the mechanisms of cell migration and dendritic spine morphogenesis.
Dr. Horwitz will lead an institute that plans to hire 65 to 75 professionals over the next three years. Staff will be organized not around individual researchers but around teams led by a senior scientist manager, with specialists in various skills, as well as technicians and other staffers.
“We're going to have a team that is responsible for making all of these engineered lines. We're going to have a team of cell biologists that's responsible for really figuring out what assays we need to build. We're going to have a team that's going to be responsible for the high throughput microscopy systems that we need to build,” Dr. Jones said. “We will be organizing all of those teams together in a broader project framework, with lots of milestones and deliverables. It's not principal investigator-driven.”
While hiring will begin soon after the launch announcement, Dr. Horwitz said, the first hires are expected to be project leads and a few other staffers until the new building is built: “Once we occupy that, we'll have the space to start to expand, and then we'll expand fast. We see that happening over a three year interval.”
The $100 million gift from Allen is expected to cover all cell science institute expenses over five years.
Allen founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003 to accelerate understanding of the human brain in health and disease, and has supported the Seattle nonprofit with $500 million to date. Last year, he launched the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence to explore critical questions in that field.