The Map That Can Change The World

Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg donates $600 million to help create a map of the human body.

stem cells map

Last September, Facebook‘s (NASDAQ:FB) founder Mark Zuckerberg and his paediatrician wife Priscilla Chan invested $600 million in a research lab they called Biohub. Based in San Francisco, the lab is run by engineers and scientists from the University of California (Berkeley and San Francisco) and Stanford University. It’s the couple’s first concrete action towards their commitment to invest over $3 billion in the next 10 years to help the world fight disease.

The primary goal of Biohub is to build the tools needed to prevent and treat all known diseases. Initially, the focus will be on 2 research projects — the Infectious Disease Initiative and the Human Cell Atlas.

The Infectious Disease Initiative will focus on combating infectious diseases like Ebola, HIV and Zika that continue to be a global threat. Part of the initiative includes the creation of a Rapid Response Team — a group of top notch scientists with access to advanced research techniques and technology, ready to devote time and effort to help fight a sudden outbreak.

The Human Cell Atlas, as the term suggests, is a map of all the different kinds of cells in the human body. Once the project is completed, it is hoped that this map which details the location, state, and internal workings of each cell in the human body will pave the way towards better disease management — from preventing and predicting, to diagnosing, treating and curing diseases. And the most ambitious goal of all — total eradication of all diseases.

For the Human Cell Atlas to be realized, scientists will need to do a close examination of all the millions of cells in the human body — their location, what they’re for, what they can do, which other cells they’re working with, what’s good for them, what’s bad for them. Once all this information is known, it will be easier to develop new drugs that can keep cells healthy. And when the mystery of how our body’s immune system works is finally uncovered, we might be able to find a better and more effective way to treat cancer and heart disease — 2 of the most notorious killers of our time.

Thanks to the inventions of Stephen Quake, co-president of BioHub, scientists are now able to analyze individual cells by isolating each cell in liquid bubbles where it can be studied in detail. Additionally, there’s another method of study that has the potential to make the cell mapping objective move forward. It involves finding out what kind of protein each single human cell is capable of manufacturing. This early, it has already resulted in the discovery of previously unknown types of cells present in the brain and the retina. Imagine how much more new information can be uncovered once this approach is taken further, and all the trillion cells that make up the entire human body is catalogued.

Putting it simply, if we know how all our cells fit together to make our body work, it will also be possible to know what we should and shouldn’t do so our cells will keep functioning optimally. And that, of course, will be the key to staying healthy and being disease-free.

Even for a billionaire, $600 million is a big investment. But considering what it can help do for the world, we can’t help but say: Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. And thank you, Facebook.

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