In 2016, billionaires better known for their tech savvy put their money behind solving major human health problems. Multiple high-profile initiatives were launched with lofty goals for preventing and curing disease.
Cancer is getting much of the attention of these “moonshot” programs. Tech billionaire Sean Parker committed $250 million to create the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which is focused on developing cell-based therapies and cancer vaccines. The funds will be dispersed among 300 scientists working at six academic cancer centers.
Vice President Joe Biden shepherded the Cancer Moonshot, which is aimed at accelerating government efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer. The future of the program, which sought $1 billion in government funding, is uncertain given the pending change in Administration.
Meanwhile, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, will put $3 billion over a decade toward curing human disease. Roughly $600 million of that will go to creating Biohub, a site meant to facilitate partnerships with Stanford University and the University of California campuses in Berkeley and San Francisco.
Industry experts regard the splashy efforts with a mix of hope and skepticism. “I think they are useful as long as we do not resort to them each time we need to accomplish something,” says Bernard Munos, founder of the InnoThink Center for Research in Biomedical Innovation.
He notes that the approach pushes researchers to collaborate and share data more effectively. But there is also concern that the initiatives will duplicate research already ongoing at other institutes or companies. And the money committed is dwarfed by the amount spent by NIH and drug firms to tackle the same problems.
Munos sees a risk of moonshot fatigue. “Scientists are willing to play along, as long as moonshots remain exceptional,” he says. “But their engagement could turn to derision if we start having the moonshot of the week.”