By Mark Terry
Each year, researchers struggle to develop a flu vaccine that can be used worldwide to protect against whichever strain of influenza viruses that are most prevalent. They do a pretty good job, but some years they’re off the mark—like 2017/2018—and the best flu vaccine only provides partial protection. As a result, the development of a “universal flu vaccine” is something of a Holy Grail.
In steps Bill Gates via The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google co-founder Larry Page, who have pledged $12 million to research to develop a universal flu vaccine.
The $12 million will be divided into $2 million grants for specific research projects, and be doled out over a two-year period. That will be for work in animals. Once—or possibly if—that work shows promise, the researchers will be eligible for grants of up to $10 million to bring them to human clinical trials.
Gates told STAT News, “We think a universal flu vaccine would not only eliminate the pandemic risk, but would have significant health benefits.”
Of course, Bill Gates and Larry Page aren’t the only uber-wealthy tech billionaires to get into funding healthcare and life science research initiatives. In 2016, Priscilla Chan, a physician, and her husband, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, pledging $3 billion towards basic science research over the next 10 years. The ambitious goal is to cure all diseases, or prevent them or manage them, by the end of the century. One of the first steps of the initiative is the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, an independent research center that will coordinate activities between researchers at UCSF, UC Berkeley and Stanford University. They pledged $600 million in support of that Biohub.
Last week, for example, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative granted funding to Casey Greene, an assistant professor of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University Pennsylvania. It is to fund his work on the Human Cell Atlas, one of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative programs to map every type of cell in the human body. Greene’s work includes bioinformatics, computational biology, data integration, machine learning, and systems genomics.
And Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and the founding president of Facebook, founded the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy with a $250 million donation. In January, Tmunity Therapeutics closed on a Series A financing worth $100 million, and the Parker Institute, along with Ping An Ventures, Gilead Sciences, and Be The Match BioTherapies, were part of the syndicate of investors. Tmunity focuses on next-generation immuno-oncology, including using CRISPR gene editing technology to modify T-cells to work against solid tumors.
In mid-April, researchers from the Parker Institute presented their work at the 2018 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting. In addition, the Parker Institute’s director at the University of California, Los Angeles, Antoni Ribas, received the AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology, recognizing an active scientist whose outstanding research in cancer immunology had a far-reaching impact on cancer research.