Silicon Valley’s War on Disease: Zuckerberg, Microsoft, Google to End Cancer and Aging

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Silicon Valley is going to war against disease, cancer, aging, and perhaps even death, with advanced computing, AI and machine learning, genomics, DNA engineering, biotech and nanotech. Tech giants and mega-rich philanthropists are spending billions to permit hacking biology all the way down to DNA, and perhaps we could see breakthroughs in only a few years.

Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg says:

Yes! Together we can cure disease by the end of the century. Are you in?

Zuckerberg and his wife, physician and educator Priscilla Chan, have enlisted a “dream team” of scientific leaders to oversee a US$3-billion effort to boost basic research, Nature News reports. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has been launched with the goal of helping cure, prevent and manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.

Chan and Zuckerberg want to bring the best and brightest scientists together and give them the means – logistic and financial – to develop next-generation tools for life and health research. It seems likely that AI, Machine Learning and Big Data technologies for automatic context recognition and analysis, an emerging strategic focus area for Facebook, will play an important role in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Nature News notes that this private initiative will likely be more agile than public initiatives, and “avoid some of the administrative hurdles that hamper scientists’ productivity.”

“We are committing to invest $3 billion over the next decade in this initiative to help scientists cure diseases,” say Chan and Zuckerberg. “Our first project is creating the Biohub.” Initially, the $600 million Biohub, associated with Stanford University, UCSF, and Berkeley, will use technologies such as single-cell genetic sequencing and gene editing to study cells and develop ways to detect, treat and prevent disease.

Solving Cancer in Ten Years?

Microsoft Biology LabMicrosoft wants to “solve the problem of cancer” within a decade by hacking the molecular code of cancer cells, The Telegraph reports. According to Chris Bishop, Laboratory Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge, cancer is essentially a computational problem, well suited to Microsoft’s resources and expertise. “Biology and computing are disciplines which seem like chalk and cheese but which have very deep connections on the most fundamental level,” he said.

Microsoft researchers in the first “wet lab” of the company’s Biological Computation Group are developing molecular computers built from DNA, able to find and fix individual cancer cells.

“It’s long term, but… I think it will be technically possible in five to 10 years time to put in a smart molecular system that can detect disease,” says Biological Computation Group leader Andrew Philips.

“Imagine a biological computer that operates inside a living cell, one that can be used to determine if a cell is cancerous and then trigger its death,” reads the caption of a new Microsoft Research video. “In this project, this is done using DNA as a programmable material. Just like a computer, DNA is highly programmable into a whole range of complex behaviors. This could… ultimately allow the making of biological computers created at the molecular scale.”

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

IBM is not usually considered as a Silicon Valley company – it has been around since much before Silicon Valley. However, Big Blue is one of the tech giants that are deploying advanced computing tech against cancer. Recently, IBM and the New York Genome Center announced a joint project to build a comprehensive cancer data repository with genomic and clinical data. IBM’s Watson AI system will learn to identify promising personalized treatments for cancer patients.

Solving Death?

Google Life Sciences recently re-branded as Verily and launched an ambitious research and development program with a special emphasis on advanced computing and nanotech. “We develop automated experimental and computational systems biology platforms and life sciences tools that provide more information about biological function in health and disease than has ever been available,” states the Verily website.

Our programs also include efforts such as bio-molecular nanotechnology for precision diagnostics and therapeutic delivery.

“Can Google Solve Death?” was the title of a 2103 Time Magazine cover story on Google’s life extension company Calico, whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. The best statement of Google’s bold and ambitious vision of future health care, medicine, and life sciences, is due to Bill Maris, President and Managing Partner of Google Ventures, who said:

If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.

Images from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Microsoft Research, video from Microsoft Research.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.