The scientific interests of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen led him to fund a pair of major research centers in the Boston area devoted to cracking mysteries of the human biological code—and aiming to recreate the sort of foundational work he and Bill Gates applied to personal computing in the 1970s.
Allen—who died Monday at age 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—committed $100 million overall in 2016 to pay for otherwise difficult-to-fund “out of the box” research at the “frontier of knowledge.”
Two of the four related research centers backed by Allen are in the Boston area — one at Tufts University and another at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. (The others are at University of Washington and Stanford University.) Each is called an Allen Discovery Center.
“In labs around the world, some of the world’s brightest bio-scientists are pioneering their new ambitious theories at the very frontiers of knowledge,” Allen said, announcing the investment in 2016. “I want to accelerate their tempo of discovery.”
The Seattle billionaire and philanthropist acknowledged early on he expected the risky endeavors would see setbacks along the way.
“But without risk,” he said, “there is rarely significant reward, and unless we try truly novel approaches, we may never find the answers we seek.”
The first project Allen set his sights on in March 2016 was understanding how the human body knows to build itself—starting from a single cell—into the complex shapes and systems needed to sustain life, and how cell networks rebuild, repair, and regenerate. The Allen Frontiers Group funded the project with a $10 million grant to Tufts University.
Tufts University researcher Michael Levin is leading the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, chipping away at those questions with the ultimate goal of “top-down control of complex biological shape,” according to a white paper. The report explains that the project could have serious implications for regenerative medicine, cancer biology, synthetic morphology, bioengineering, and unconventional computation.
The Boston-area research groups declined to comment on Allen’s passing.
The Seattle-based Allen Institute’s chief executive Allan Jones said in a statement, “Paul’s vision and insight have been an inspiration to me and to many others both here at the Institute that bears his name, and in the myriad of other areas that made up the fantastic universe of his interests.”
“He will be sorely missed,” Jones added. “We honor his legacy today, and every day into the long future of the Allen Institute, by carrying out our mission of tackling the hard problems in bioscience and making a significant difference in our respective fields.”
In July 2017, the Allen Frontiers Group awarded a $10 million grant to Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital to understand how the human brain evolved over the last 50,000 years and what makes it unique. Boston Children’s Hospital genomics chief and Harvard Medical School professor Christopher Walsh is heading up the research at that Allen Discovery Center.
Speaking last year at the group’s symposium, Walsh said his research center aims to compile the world’s largest resource of sequenced DNA from ancient and archaic humans, develop new analyses of human DNA changes, examine how gene enhancers were involved in changes to the brain, seek new insights into genetic brain diseases of children, and create new genetically modified animal models.
Walsh summed up the scope of the research:
“[It] really takes us from a pair of footprints millions of years ago on Earth to a pair of footprints on Mars — I mean on the moon, sorry,” he said quickly correcting the mistake. “Someday.”
Photo of Paul Allen by Miles Harris via Creative Commons license.