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Allen Institute Releases First Data for Spinal Cord Researchers, Unveils New Financing Model

Paul Allen gave researchers a map of the mouse brain first, and now comes the spinal cord. The Allen Institute for Brain Science, a Seattle-based nonprofit backed by the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, said today it is releasing a cellular map on its website that shows 2,000 genes at work in the mouse spinal cord for the first time.

The full map, of an estimated 20,000 genes, won’t be available to researchers until year’s end, says Allan Jones, the Allen Institute’s chief scientific officer. So, why exactly is it making such a big deal with a press conference on Capitol Hill with Washington state’s senior U.S. Senator, Patty Murray?

Sometimes innovation needs strong financial partnerships to thrive, even when one of the world’s richest men is involved—that’s why.

Standing alongside Murray, who has an interest in veteran’s issues, will be representatives from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the ALS Association, who all want to see progress in spinal cord research, and are contributing to it. Along with other groups who want the groundbreaking tool to become a reality—including Wyeth Research, Pemco Insurance, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society–have agreed to kick in about $600,000 of the estimated $2.3 million cost of the project, Jones says.

It’s the first time the Allen Institute has brought such a group together to fund a project, and a model that the Institute hopes to duplicate in the future, to become like other research institutions that depend on a mix of philanthropy, government grants, and corporate sponsorship to sustain their work. The message: Paul Allen isn’t going into poverty anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean he should have to write all the checks himself either.

“If you look at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which is affiliated Weill Cornell Medical College, Sandy Weill gave them a mountain of money,” says Elaine Jones, the Allen Institute’s chief operating officer. “Did they still go out and fund-raise for more? You bet. No one person can do it all. If these projects are useful, others really should step up to the plate.”

Allen committed $100 million of his fortune to start the Institute in 2003, and personally anted up for the full $41 million cost to start up the Institute and put together the 3-D cellular map of the mouse brain by 2006. Yet the Institute, with 120 employees along the ship canal in Fremont, has made it clear that it needs other sustainable sources of cash to accomplish its future goals. That includes a cellular map of the human brain that’s estimated to cost $55 million over four years. Another project moving in parallel will provide cellular snapshots of mouse brains at various stages of development. That’s estimated to run two years and cost $15 million.

No one can say for sure what discoveries will come from assembling a genetic map of the spinal cord, although at least a few researchers are eager to get their hands on the full data set. “We know very little about the genes that control different functions in the spinal cord,” said Jane Roskums, a spinal cord researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, in a statement. “This atlas will help researchers advance their work in quantum leaps.”