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Billionaire Paul Allen Pledges $100 Million for Cell Science Institute

Image: Fibroblast cells

This photomicrograph shows adult human fibroblast cells with intracellular proteins involved in the adhesion of these cells to a matrix surface. These fibroblasts are converted to human induced pluripotent stem cells through a reprogramming process. Ankur Singh / Georgia Tech

Software billionaire Paul Allen says he's committing $100 million to create a new institute in Seattle focusing on the mechanics of human cell biology.

The Allen Institute for Cell Science's first project, the Allen Cell Observatory, will focus on creating computational models for the kinds of induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells, that have the ability to turn into heart muscle cells or the epithelial cells that form the inner linings of organs as well as skin.

Such cells hold promise for facilitating research into how cells become diseased, and potentially for growing replacement tissues.

"Cells are the fundamental units of life, with every disease we know of affecting particular types of cells," Allen said in a news release. "Scientists have learned a great deal about many of the 50 trillion cells in our bodies over the last decades, but creating a comprehensive, predictive model of the cell will require a different approach."

The Allen Cell Observatory's goal is to produce a dynamic, visual database and animated models of cell parts in action. Such models could shed light on the processes by which genetic information is translated into cellular functions, and reveal what goes wrong in a diseased cell. That, in turn, could help researchers predict which therapies will work best to counter diseases, or perhaps head off the disease in the first place.

'Right time' for research

Allen's latest philanthropic venture was unveiled Monday at the American Society for Cell Biology's annual meeting in Philadelphia. It follows up on plans that the co-founder of Microsoft has had in mind for years.

"It's the right time to start a big initiative in cell biology: understanding how cells work, understanding the detailed things that happen inside cells, which is behind cancer and Alzheimer's and all those things," Allen told NBC News last year.

Image: Paul Allen
Software billionaire Paul Allen's latest philanthropic project is a $100 million commitment to create the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Reuters file

Paul Allen's net worth is estimated at more than $17 billion. Over the past 15 years, he has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to scientific projects including the Allen Telescope Array, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Last month, he said he would contribute $100 million to the global fight against the Ebola virus. (Allen also owns somewhat less-scientific ventures, such as the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.)

The cell science institute will be housed in the seven-story Allen Institute headquarters building that is currently under construction in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. The building is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2015, and will also house the Allen Brain Institute.

"The co-location will be an obvious point of interaction," said Allen Jones, the brain institute's CEO.

Open-access science

The institute's executive director is Rick Horwitz, who served as the director of the federally funded Cell Migration Consortium for 10 years and has spent the past 15 years doing cell research as a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

The institute's data, models and tools will be made publicly available online, Horwitz said.

"We plan to engage the global cell science community in developing and executing our projects," he said in Monday's news release. "And by openly sharing our data, reagents, databases and models, we will leverage and empower research by our colleagues around the world."

Image: Rick Horwitz
Rick Horwitz is the executive director of the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Allen Institute for Cell Science

The institute will bring on about 75 employees over the next three years, Horwitz said during a news conference at the ASCB meeting. Jones said Paul Allen's $100 million commitment would be spread out over five years.

The Allen Institute for Cell Science isn't the only institution of its kind: Several other cell research centers already have been created, including the Klarman Cell Observatory at the Harvard/MIT Broad Institute and Leiden University's Cell Observatory in the Netherlands.

Horwitz said "there are almost no observatories in terms of what we intend to do."

"I don't know of any observatories of any scale that have looked at the cell in an integrated way to deal with the images the way we're dealing with them," he said.

However, Horwitz said the Allen Institute would collaborate actively with others in the field. "The cell is so complex, there is no one that I know ... who actually could do this by themselves," he said.