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Paul Allen Commits $300M to Expand Institute for Brain Science

Xconomy Seattle — 

Paul Allen is making one of the biggest bets of his life on brain science.

The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft says he’s committing another $300 million of his fortune to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit research center he founded in Seattle in 2003. The new cash infusion—one of the largest private contributions ever to neuroscience—will support the first four years of a new 10-year plan at the institute.

The plan is to propel forward three ambitious new initiatives to advance basic scientific understanding of how the brain works. The Allen Institute plans to double in size to carry out this work, to more than 350 employees over the next four years.

The initiatives will look for answers to questions like how the brain stores and processes information; what the cellular building blocks are that underlie brain function; and how brain cells develop to foster behavior, thought, and dysfunction that can lead to disease. The investment by Allen comes at a time of relatively stagnant funding from the National Institutes of Health, and a period of cutbacks in neuroscience R&D at the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies.

Unlike most of the work funded by those other entities, the brain resources generated by the Allen Institute will be put in the public domain for researchers from around the world to use in their research. If successful, the institute could provide clues to help scientists come up with better ways to treat neurological problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, and schizophrenia, which affect millions of people.

Paul Allen

“The Allen Institute’s groundbreaking approach—the way that it conducts ‘big science’ in an ‘open science’ fashion—has been a game-changer in neuroscience,” said Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel Laureate and director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, in an Allen Institute statement.

Although it kept a low profile in its early years, the Allen Institute has begun to gain more recognition in the neuroscience community and attract more talented staff.

The institute—which has now secured $500 million in commitments from Allen since its founding—has created unique, functional gene expression maps of the mouse brain, the human brain, and spinal cords. The institute says its resources now get about 50,000 online visits per month. In the past year, some top neuroscientists have joined the Allen Institute, including Christoph Koch from Caltech, R. Clay Reid from Harvard Medical School, and Ricardo Dolmetsch from Stanford University.

I’m planning to learn more about this expansion this morning at a press conference Allen is holding at the Seattle-based institute.

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  • Brad Loncar

    It is such an important, and decent, thing that Mr. Allen is doing. The NIH’s fiscal 2011 research budget for Cancer = $5.5B, HIV/AIDS = $3B, while Alzheimer’s, for example, was less than $500M. Though cancer and HIV certainly deserve the scientific attention they receive, we desperately need to step up the effort on neurological diseases as well. As I am sure most readers here already know, Alzheimer’s alone is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., yet there is little to no understanding about why/how it occurs. The progress we have made to date is both heartbreaking and unacceptable. That’s why it seems natural that starting at the beginning like this and trying to understand the basic building blocks of how the brain actually works, though no doubt painstaking, is incredibly necessary. I’m not sure anything other than a private effort like this could get the job moving. I think it is honorable for him to be expanding such an important project.

  • Brad—thanks very much for the thoughtful comment. Even though at Xconomy we focus on the business applications of science and technology, I really have to tip my hat at this strong statement by Mr. Allen for basic research. This kind of fundamental investment in basic resources for the neuroscience community is the bedrock that biotech and pharma companies need to build their businesses on. It will obviously take a long time, and a lot of fits and starts in R&D, before this investment pay dividends in the form of new treatments. But if nobody were to make this kind of basic investment, then we’d never see the kind of applications everybody wants in the future.