099: Accelerating Science to Eradicate Disease with Priscilla Chan and Stephen Quake

The CZ Biohub Series – Part IV

The CZ Biohub’s inspiring story began when Priscilla Chan asked Stephen Quake a seemingly impossible question: “Is it possible to cure, prevent, and manage disease in our children’s lifetime?”.

In 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg, set out to answer that question with a bold new mission to eradicate disease by the end of the century.

On the final installment of our CZ Biohub series, Priscilla and Steve join Nate to talk about the work being done at Biohub, and how understanding human biology is the key to unlocking powerful medical treatments and cures. Through their commitment to the cause, they are showing that anything is possible.

  • Priscilla Chan is co-founder and co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI)
  • Stephen Quake is Head of Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where he oversees CZI’s science grant programs, technology development, and the CZ Biohub Network. Stephen is also a professor at Stanford University.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell us how you see the world. And also it’s really hard work and so don’t give up. Commitment to following through is one of the key things to being successful.”

– Priscilla Chan

Other episodes from the CZ Biohub Series:
096: Bioengineering Malaria with Paul Lebel

097: Mapping the Cell with Manuel Leonetti

098: The Tiny Zebrafish Hotel with Merlin Lange, Loïc Royer, and Shruthi VijayKumar

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Nate: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the show about science. This is your host, Nate. For the past couple of episodes, we’ve been visiting the CZ Biohub and figuring out what goes on there. Well, today we are going to be interviewing Priscilla Chan and Steve Quake to figure out how close they are to achieving their mission of preventing or curing all disease by the end of the century.

All right. Hello Steve, hello Priscilla.

Priscilla Chan: Hi.

Stephen Quake: Hi.

Nate: So I’m really excited to have you both here today on the show about science. Should we just begin? Sure.

Priscilla Chan: You’re the boss.

Nate: All right, so could you both introduce yourselves?

Priscilla Chan: Sure. I’m Priscilla Chan. I’ve had lots of jobs. I’ve been a teacher, actually a fourth grade science teacher.

I’ve been a pediatrician. And now I run a science philanthropy called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Nate: Very cool. And what about you, Steve?

Stephen Quake: So my name is Steve Quake. I’m the head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and I’m a scientist and also a professor at Stanford University.

Nate: So I’d like to start at the very beginning. How did you both get interested in science?

Stephen Quake: I was a kid when the personal computer revolution was happening. Computers were moving from something that only a few people had access to that everybody could use. And so I grew up in the midst of that, learning how to program computers, was super interested in technology, could see what was changing the world.

And that’s what eventually led to my interest in science. It started from computers, then it moved to more basic questions around how does the world work. You know, what are the stars made of? How does physics work? Why does math do such a good job describing physics? And I kind of got pulled more into basic science from that.

Nate: And you, Priscilla?

Priscilla Chan: For me, I love the way science and for me, biology is often a puzzle. Like, how do you solve these little puzzles? How do things fit together? And a huge part of it for why I ultimately choose all the different jobs that I’ve chosen is because I love working with kids and families. This is non-science related, but oftentimes that’s just as important as to the science that draws you in, is that my parents didn’t go to college.

My parents were immigrants to this country. And my science teachers, especially in middle school and high school, just told me about the most amazing things that happen in the world and I was like so amazed and awed and inspired by them that I was like I want to do more of that and I want to share that with kids like me who want to see the world through this really cool and an interesting and amazing lens and so I decided that I wanted to be like my teachers and work with kids and so all my different stops along the way have been about how can I work with kids and how can I stay being a kid for longer.

Stephen Quake: My question for you Nate, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Nate: So part of me wants to go into the UN. I’m either between peacekeeping or something science related but yeah probably something along those lines but I still have a some time to think about it. I might also go into something like along the lines of what you’re doing.

But yeah, I’m not fully sure. –

Stephen Quake: All right. –

Priscilla Chan: Do you like the UN ’cause you like to see different countries and be with people from all different countries? –

Nate: I mean, yeah, also I like the peacekeeping side of things. I think that makes a good difference in the world. – Yeah. –

Priscilla Chan: Yeah.

Stephen Quake: Making a difference in the world, that’s a great goal to have.

Nate: So, Priscilla, speaking of goals, could you tell us, like, why did you and Mark Zuckerberg found the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and what did you decide its mission would be?

Priscilla Chan: So, we started really thinking about how we can invest in science in 2015, so seven years ago now. And we started with a simple goal question we asked ourselves, “Is it possible to actually cure prevent and manage disease in our children’s lifetime?”

And the really fun part was after people got over how big and audacious that goal was, because we had to push them and say, “No, really? Could we? Is that possible?” And I will say Steve is one of those people that first looked at us and then we’re like, “No, do the math.” go figure out sort of like what would need to happen for that to be an obtainable goal and people came back and said yeah I think you could and so we spent a lot of time iterating on what would we do to actually achieve that and we spent time with dozens of scientists, engineers, people who worked in the biomedical field for a long time to understand What were the things that were preventing us from being able to do work as quickly and as effectively as we needed to achieve that goal of eradicating disease?

And so like I will say there were a couple themes. Like why doesn’t everyone have access to the same tools and technologies that create incredible outcomes and speed and replicability in science? Why weren’t more people working together? The first Biohub which you visited is a partnership between UCSF, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.

Traditionally, they don’t work together. Like why not? What if we made the ecosystem more open so people could understand each other’s work and build upon it? So those were the top themes that came out and we decided to start the Biohub as a way of actually trying to contribute to being part of the answer.

Nate: And so just so our listeners understand, what is the difference between the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub? –

Priscilla Chan: So at the Biohub, we do a lot of like the doing of science. Like people at the bench side actually running the experiments and trying to figure out what new information we can learn.

At CZI, we do two other things in addition to that. And Steve’s in charge of making sure that We are funding great scientists, and so that means scientists that are at all different universities across the globe, giving them the resources to do the science that they think will be the most important that they can contribute.

And we also have teams of software engineers that build tools, software tools to make it so that every scientist can do their best work. So we bring all those things together under one umbrella at the Chan Zuckerberg initiative.

Nate: So Steve, over the past couple of episodes, we’ve learned about some of the work that’s been going on at the Biohub. So how is all of that contributing to CZI’s big goal of eradicating all diseases?

Stephen Quake: Yeah. So we started the Biohub with two major projects in mind. One was to build a cell atlas, the other was to better understand infectious disease.

And we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to identify all the cell types of the human body and come up with molecular definitions of them and create a reference that would help all scientists working on human biology. And we did the same thing with mouse and with fly and even with lemur, which is a non-human primate that lives in Madagascar.

And so these were gigantic efforts of sort of big team science. Each paper had like 160 authors on it. We had faculty from all the universities involved. And it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t have happened without the BioHarmon, without Mark and Prasanna’s incredible generosity. The other big effort we had was infectious disease.

And that was a little prescient because nobody knew that a global pandemic was coming. And so we had groups working on new ways to study epidemiology of disease and use to analyze viruses and bacteria in various people’s blood and saliva and whatnot. So we were very well positioned when the pandemic came to play a role in the Bay Area, developing a COVID testing lab and to partner with our local public health authorities to try to help them in their response to the pandemic.

Priscilla Chan: Yeah, I think one thing, Nate, if I could add to that is, you know, what we learn in studying of our earliest biology classes that like you know all cells have the same organelles and you know here’s the Golgi apparatus and here’s the mitochondria and here’s the nucleus. The thing that’s been really amazing to see is just how there are just millions of different variants within a single organism of understanding how every cell is different and you know Steve and his partners have put together something called the tabula sapiens and among the other maps of like how does each single cell or each part of your body actually work.

Nate: And did you say the tablet of sapiens? What is that?

Stephen Quake: Yeah, that’s our cell atlas of the human body. We called it all our, we’ve used Latin for all of our projects. So we started with the mouse, that was tabular muris, the map of the mouse. And then tabular drosophila is the map of the fly. Tabular sapiens, the map of the human, where we try to map out all those cell types in the way Priscilla just described to you.

Nate: Yeah, I heard something with tablet. And so earlier Steve you mentioned infectious disease. So what techniques are you using to help fight and eventually cure all those different infectious diseases?

Stephen Quake: Yeah, a lot of what we did is around diagnostics. So using the powerful new sequencing tools available to study the real diversity of microorganisms that are around us, some of which make us sick, some of which don’t, but to really understand that whole landscape of organisms, which has sort of been mostly invisible before, or the predominantly invisible, now being revealed through sequencing.

And we’ve done a lot in that, not just in humans, but like in mosquitoes, which are vectors that carry disease. And our sort of work there is now being used around the world by labs in something like 46 different countries now.

Nate: Yeah and so Priscilla, how do you hope to see the world change because of the work you’re doing now?

Priscilla Chan: Yeah so how does all this mapping out actually allow us to make progress in being able to cure, prevent and manage all disease? And we’re committed to it and we think about it in you know many decades problem. And we really think about this next 10 years right now that we’re in is like how do we actually measure human biology in a way that allows us to understand how to keep people healthy, how to treat people when they’re sick.

And so a lot of this is actually just understanding what’s happening. You know for instance in your brain when we’re having this conversation right now, what cells are firing, what proteins are being triggered to get to work, what signals are being sent between cells. And so we’re really deeply in this measurement phase to really understand because we’re at a phase where instead of understanding things in really generic terms, we can get super specific about a particular part of your body, a particular biological process.

And so, you know, what we’re talking about in the human cell That’s squarely in the measuring human biology part. Then you can start designing treatments. Then you can start designing ways to keep people healthy. Like, you know, for instance, when people start struggling with their memory, what is actually happening in their brains that actually creates that change from before?

And, you know, I imagine this incredible resource that will exist openly across science that allows people people to design drugs, design vaccines. I think we’re in a wonderful phase where there’s so much knowledge to be gained in biology and that knowledge is going to be the power that fuels medicine for a long time.

Nate: And so Priscilla, what is some advice that you have for kids who might want to like either work at the Biohub or work in a field similar to that in the future?

Priscilla Chan: Yeah, the first thing I would say is that the way that you see the world is important. And you know, you’ll learn a lot more over time, but even the way you see the world today is important.

Because it’s different than the way I see the world and you’ll ask different questions than me, which will trigger all of us to say, huh, I didn’t think about it that way. And every time you can see a problem differently, you can do a better job at trying to answer that problem. And so don’t be afraid to speak up and tell us how you see the world.

And also it’s really hard work. And so don’t give up. There’s gonna be a ton of ups and downs and we could probably spend you know another hour talking in the ways that I’ve been unsuccessful and Steve’s been unsuccessful But that’s that’s all part of the process

Nate: Yeah

Priscilla Chan: This must be so much work is it like one of your like after-school projects that you work on

Nate: I mean we do it like sometimes after school, but usually on the weekends and I mean It is a lot of work, but I’m kind of used to it by now because it started when I was five and it’s been seven years now, so.

Priscilla Chan: You know, commitment to following through is one of the key things to being successful. So you’ve already, like, if I looked at your resume, I’d be like, well, he’s already committed. So.

Nate: I mean, I try.

Priscilla Chan: Very impressive that you’ve been doing this since you were five.

Nate: Yeah, and that’s kind of contributed to how I do the actual episodes.

‘Cause sometimes I have some bullets outlining what I want to do, but I never have a script. I never write down any questions. ‘Cause at the time I couldn’t read and I couldn’t write and I definitely couldn’t type.

Priscilla Chan: That’s really funny, that’s right. I mean, how could you write down or do any prep work besides have a conversation before you can read or write?

Nate: Yeah, but I mean now I can I can type very well. I’m 5,000 words deep into a novel.

Priscilla Chan: You are? Yeah.

Nate: You’re writing a novel? Yes, I mean it’s it’s a work in progress but I’m trying to do it before before Christmas.

Priscilla Chan: Okay, so your attention span is pretty decent.

Nate: Yeah, I think what has it been five days?

Priscilla Chan: I wish I was in the time of my life, Steve, where I could just pick up new things and become a novelist.

Stephen Quake: Oh yeah, tell me about it.

Nate: It’s a good time.

Stephen Quake: Everyone has one novel in them, that’s what I think.

Nate: I mean, hopefully more than one novel, but you gotta start somewhere. And thank you so much Steve and Priscilla for taking the time to talk to me.

Stephen Quake: Thanks for having us.

Nate: Yeah, it was great.

There you have it folks, the show about science is complete. This entire series wouldn’t have been possible without everyone at CZI and the CZ Biohub. Extra special thanks to Patricia Condon, Jeff McGregor, Mark Fegara, and of course Priscilla and Steve. Okay, Dad, you can shut the recording off.

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