The Broad Institute has been showered with $32.5 million from a philanthropist to take on one of the biggest challenges in biology: mapping the molecular circuitry inside mammalian cells. The Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will create what it's calling a cell observatory that brings together biologists from the institute and elsewhere to tackle this problem, akin to how astronomers gather at telescope observatories to collect and analyze data.
The gift announced yesterday comes from the Klarman Family Foundation, a Boston charity founded by financier Seth Klarman, who sits on the Broad's board, and his wife Beth. The Broad will use the money to build on efforts by systems biologists to map how genes, RNA, proteins, and other biomolecules interact in pathways to make cells function in healthy people and in disease. "It is a substantial challenge but it is one in which groups around the world have been making a lot of progress in the past few years," partly thanks to new tools for shutting off genes and analyzing gene-protein interactions, says Broad computational biologist Aviv Regev, who will head the observatory.
The $32.5 million will fund a 5-year program with three components, according to Regev. One is technology development—improving existing tools and making them available "not just in the observatory but to the wider community," Regev says. Another program of the observatory will support small collaborative grants at the Broad Institute and beyond.
The third component has a more specific goal: studying "as many layers of the circuitry as possible" in two to four mammalian cell types to build a comprehensive model of a cell's inner workings. This is a pilot project, says Regev, with the goal of eventually being able to apply it to any type of cell, she says. At that point it might become the basis for a large international effort—some are using the term "Human Circuit Project," Regev says.
Regev says that while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds studies of cell circuitry, the federal agency wouldn't necessarily support what the observatory wants to do. "It's one of those cases where philanthropy can really help you push the envelope in terms of risk," she says.
Harvard University stem cell researcher Benjamin Ebert, who will be involved in the new venture, agrees. Ebert and Regev have mapped gene expression in blood stem cells as they mature into different types of blood cells. Extending this work to the proteins encoded by those genes is "much more complicated" because it involves hundreds of interactions, Ebert says. And because this modeling is "fairly exploratory" and not testing a hypothesis, it might not do well in NIH peer review, he says. "It's extremely helpful to have funding for these kinds of things."
A steering committee will refine the plan for the observatory over the next few months, Regev says. For now, it is setting up in existing space in the Broad's building.
The Broad isn't alone: Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, the Salk Institute in San Diego, and University of California, San Diego, are also launching major efforts to study cell circuitry, says UCSD computational biologist Trey Ideker. He suggests that eventually these groups should form a "big, coordinated science project" so that they can divide up the task of mapping circuits in different cell types. "This is a very big goal and in a sense the logical successor to the Human Genome Project," Ideker says.