Joe DeRisi on How the Biohub Will Create Opportunities for Research Collaboration

Joe DeRisi talks to researchers in his lab
Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor and chair of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF, will co-direct the new Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, which will be located at Mission Bay. Photo by Steve Babuljak

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub ­will bring together scientists and engineers from UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley and Stanford University to collaborate on cutting-edge, technologically driven biomedical research.

Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor and chair of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF, will co-direct the Biohub with Stephen Quake, DPhil, the Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering and professor of applied physics at Stanford. In preparing for the launch, DeRisi spoke about his vision for the Biohub and what researchers can look forward to.

How did the idea for Biohub originate, and how did you become involved?

Throughout the years, Steve Quake, Jennifer Doudna, and I have had several conversations where we sort of lamented the fact that there wasn’t a formal mechanism by which UC Berkeley, Stanford University and UCSF could collaborate – other than in ad-hoc ways, one-off grants and so on.

In July 2015, I had a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in which Mark raised the very same point, that there wasn’t a great way that the three universities could work together to really leverage their strengths. He proposed to me the idea of setting up an independent entity that would accomplish this mission, and be part of the ultimate goal of curing, preventing or managing all diseases by the end of the century. It’s an audacious goal.

The model that we and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have put together is a hybrid of many good models of nonprofit research organizations that are out there, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Packard Foundation, the Paul Allen Institute, and the Broad Institute.

The Biohub will select Chan Zuckerberg investigators from across the three institutions for five-year appointments. What kind of investigators are you hoping to attract?

We’re hoping to attract investigators who have bold new ideas that normal grant-giving organizations might not have an appetite for, because the ideas may be at too exploratory a stage.

We’re hoping to attract investigators who have bold new ideas that normal grant-giving organizations might not have an appetite for, because the ideas may be at too exploratory a stage. And we’re hoping to attract investigators who strongly emphasize tool building, technology building and engineering in their applications because we believe new tool development and advances in engineering technology will drive new kinds of science.

We’re not going to mandate the research direction for the investigator program. So the kinds of research could be very wide and varied, ranging from fundamental basic principles, and even computation, theory and engineering, all the way to applied clinical medicine.

In addition to the investigator program, the Biohub will have two launch projects: the Cell Atlas and the Infectious Disease Project. Why were these projects chosen?

The launch projects were designed to emphasize both basic science and clinical applications. And I think these are two areas in which we are uniquely poised to make rapid progress.

The Cell Atlas is really a fundamental discovery-driven project. It aims to be able to define every cell type in the body, in all cell states and all cell transitions, and in a wide context of environments, including development, neurobiology, cancer, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease – you name it. It will leverage some of the newest genome-wide screening tools such as single-cell sequencing and genome-wide CRISPR tools.

The infectious diseases project will have direct clinical implications, but also requires substantial amounts of basic science and fundamental discovery. It has four goals: first, to detect and identify an infectious agent; second, to respond to new emerging biothreats, such as Zika; third, to develop treatments using techniques like small-molecule drug discovery; and fourth, to develop vaccines and other methods for prevention.

The Biohub will also house core facilities that will be available to researchers from the three institutions and beyond. What can researchers look forward to?

A lot of the high-capital infrastructure that we’ll be installing at the Biohub will be broadly available to the UCSF, UC Berkeley, and Stanford communities in much the same manner as the technology already available at the Center for Advanced Technologies here at Mission Bay. So we’re building off of that successful model for running an open-access facility.

People can come on over and use the equipment at no charge or a minimal charge to cover consumables. It’s not our intention to replicate existing cores that are already here – we will build new capabilities. It’s likely to be both high-throughput, genome-wide robotic systems for CRISPR-based screening technology, as well as single-cell sequencing technologies, and other ways of assessing large-scale data collection from cellular assays. We really hope to be fully running with our core facilities in 2017.

You’ve been a champion of open-access publishing in science for a long time. How will that carry over to the Biohub?

It’s important to us that all the data that the Biohub produces be available to the broader scientific community without restrictions.

It’s important to us that all the data that the Biohub produces be available to the broader scientific community without restrictions. As part of that, we have a strong emphasis on open-access publishing and we’re producing novel software tools and interfaces that will allow easy access to data.

Having scientific data and the record of our science progress be easily accessible to all, is in our interest, frankly, because it accelerates and advances the pace of research in ways that traditional paywalls and copyrights merely inhibit.

What excites you the most about this new venture?

I think it’s a fantastic new opportunity to construct a model for doing science that is built upon many different things that both Steve and I have seen work across different institutions and projects, all rolled into one, here in what is probably the most exciting area of biotechnology in the country – the Bay Area.