How challenging risky ideas fuels the research ecosystem

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Stephen Quake, PhD

Leveraging his expertise and passion for basic research, Quake helped establish the Chan Zuckerberg (CZ) Biohub in 2016. The CZ Biohub is a regional research organization aimed at understanding the fundamental mechanisms of disease in order to develop new technologies that can lead to effective diagnostics and therapies. . According to Quake, the association allows faculty members at associated universities (the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Francisco and Stanford University) to embrace the riskier ideas – “those that wouldn’t get funding from conventional sources, ”Quake said.

CZ Biohub solicits research proposals from individual faculty members. However, the organization approaches this with a twist. He asks professors to submit ideas that would never be funded by government agencies because the scientist might lack sufficient preliminary data to convince a panel of skeptical peers or, for other reasons, would likely not be successful. a large subsidy.

The importance of basic research

Quake said 90 faculty members have been funded through this mechanism. He lists some of the incredible research achievements that have resulted from the initiative. The discoveries include the discovery of new forms of microbial life, the acquisition of new knowledge in neuroscience, and the design of potential new medical devices that monitor a patient’s response to drugs. CZ Biohub’s support to its scientists enables them to obtain preliminary data and complete proof-of-concept studies so that they can secure larger funds in the longer term.

A notable example of how well this system worked was during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid pace of scientific progress made during the pandemic in vaccine and therapy development has built on work done by scientists in academia over the past decades, Quake said. The compressed work they did during a global emergency was only made possible thanks to the foundations laid by many scientists doing basic research in academic and government laboratories.

CZ Biohub helps researchers find answers to key questions by partnering with them early in the process, when smaller amounts of financial support are transformative and help advance research where it can receive federal funding. If federal funding is the foundation of basic science, CZ Biohub helps nurture this ecosystem, Quake explained. In this way, the organization helps to accelerate basic science.

“[Basic research] helps us understand the fundamental nature of the universe and, in the case of biology, understand what life is, ”Quake explained. “We all have this curiosity. Why does this little beetle look like this? And why does it do that? And why were the birds flying south for the winter? Why are we getting old? Why do we get sick and why can’t we live forever? These are all questions we are thinking about. Basic research is helping us get the answer. “

Plus, CZ Biohub is tackling big projects, Quake said. Quake is closely involved in an initiative to create a cell atlas to accompany the genome. The goal of the project is to create molecular portraits of all cell types in an organism and to really understand how the genome is used in different cells.

Quake explains that the genome, while the same in all cells, is more of a “parts list,” where different parts are used in lung cells compared to brain or kidney cells. The reference resource they are developing notes this difference in a powerful way. Cellular atlases are created for mice, humans, flies, and even lemurs.

The intersection of academia, industry and nonprofits

As a theoretical physicist, Quake helped start the bioengineering department at Stanford. He has always been interested in the interface between biology and physics, he explained. His laboratory focused on two main areas: the development of liquid biopsies and the development of cell atlases. In both of these spaces he was also a successful entrepreneur.

“I was very interested to see the fruits of our research helping people,” Quake said. “If you’re an academic you tend to write articles and they accumulate dust in journals. To really see things having an impact you have to take it to the next level, and that’s why I got involved in helping founded businesses. “

Fluidigm was the first company founded by Quake 20 years ago. He is considered by many to be the grandfather of modern single-cell analysis. The company manufactures microfluidic devices, which now have hundreds of applications in molecular and cellular biology.

In the field of biotools, Quake also founded Helicos Biosciences, and in the field of diagnostics, he launched Verinata, CareDx and Caris Life Sciences, among others. Another company he helped establish, Quanticel Pharmaceuticals, provides genomic analysis of human cancers. Quake co-founded two therapeutic companies: Tachyon Therapeutics and IgGenix.

“It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot along the way, and it’s just been a great amplifier of the things that are coming out of academic research,” Quake said.

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