CZI in Chi: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative sets first location for $1B biohub expansion

Just over a year after lining up another $3.4 billion to keep developing new tools and technologies toward its long-standing goal of honing our knowledge of human health and disease, the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative is breaking new ground—literally.

The philanthropic initiative announced Thursday that it has chosen Chicago as the first outpost of its CZ Biohub Network, a long-term project that received $1 billion of the late 2021 pledge and will see CZI build new biomedical research centers beyond its San Francisco headquarters.

CZ Biohub Chicago will focus specifically on developing new technologies equipped with sensors and probes that can draw out high-resolution biological information from the human body at a molecular level. That information will give researchers an up-close look at inflammation and malfunctioning immune cells—both of which can contribute to diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and more but which can also be harnessed and used as treatment for those same conditions.

“This institute will embark on science to embed miniaturized sensors into tissues that will allow us to understand how healthy and diseased tissues function in unprecedented detail,” Priscilla Chan, M.D., said in the release, adding that improving that understanding will give researchers a better idea of “what goes wrong in disease and how to fix it.”

“This might feel like science fiction today, but we think it’s realistic to achieve huge progress in the next 10 years,” added Chan, who is co-founder and co-CEO of CZI alongside her husband, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The work at CZ Biohub Chicago will rely on collaborations between the institute’s researchers and those from the nearby University of Chicago and Northwestern University as well as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The site will be led by Shana Kelley, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biomedical engineering at Northwestern, who said in the statement that the center’s goal “has large engineering challenges to surmount and is wildly, but not impossibly, ambitious.”

“This immense scientific challenge requires bringing together researchers and technologists in new ways to accomplish great science that isn’t done in conventional environments,” Zuckerberg said. “The powerful collaborative model of the San Francisco Biohub has shown us that cross-disciplinary science leads to breakthroughs, and this integrated research model is a key part of how we’ll move towards curing, preventing or managing all disease by the end of the century.”

The Illinois group secured the inaugural spot in the biohub network after a yearlong selection process that included 57 other applicants, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office said in an announcement of its own.

A quarter of the allotted $1 billion of the CZ Biohub Network funds will go to the Chicago site, according to Forbes. In addition to that $250 million, the governor’s office said it has committed another $25 million in state support.

This first extension of CZI’s biohub comes several years after the initial San Francisco site was set up in 2016 in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of California’s outposts in Berkeley and San Francisco. In that time, the center’s researchers have built whole-organism cell atlases of humans and several small animals, and their ongoing work to spot emerging infectious disease outbreaks gave the state of California a leg up in its response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides the CZ Biohub Network pledge, the $3.4 billion in funding announced in 2021 set aside between $800 million and $1 billion for the original biohub, with an aim of extending its operations for at least another decade. The remaining millions went toward the establishment of two new R&D facilities: the Chan Zuckerberg Institute for Advanced Biomedical Imaging and the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, the latter of which is based at Harvard and is named for Zuckerberg’s mother.