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Jay Shendure
University of Washington geneticist Jay Shendure will direct one of the newly created Allen Discovery Centers. (Allen Institute Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to speed the pace of biomedical breakthroughs, is adding two more research centers to its lineup – including one at the University of Washington.

Each of the Allen Discovery Centers will receive $10 million in grants over the next four years, with the potential for a total $30 million boost over eight years.

The Allen Discovery Center for Cell Lineage Tracing is being set up at UW Medicine under the direction of geneticist Jay Shendure. The co-director is Caltech’s Michael Elowitz, with Harvard’s Alex Schier as site director.

The center will focus on gene-editing techniques that help researchers trace the genetic “barcodes” for cell lines as they multiply, and read out the histories of cells as well.

“We can essentially create a family tree for an organism’s cells, which tells us each cell’s relationships to its ancestors and other cells both near and far,” Shendure said in a news release. “We hope that the generation of technologies that we’re developing will enable us to gain the same kind of global view on development that the Human Genome Project provided for our genes.”

Tom Skalak
Tom Skalak is executive director of the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. (Allen Institute Photo)

Tom Skalak, executive director of the Allen Frontiers Group, said the techniques could reveal “the programming language for vertebrate animals” and facilitate the development and study of artificial chromosomes.

“We think it’s going to be a transformational technology,” Skalak told GeekWire.

The other $10 million grant was awarded for the Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution, which is being created at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School under the leadership of Christopher Walsh.

“Understanding how the human brain evolved, and cataloging the genes involved in that evolution, will shed an exciting light on what makes humans distinct, and may also shed light on brain disorders,” Walsh, a geneticist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in a news release.

Christopher Walsh
Neurologist Christopher Walsh of Boston Children’s Hospital leads an Allen Discovery Center focusing on human brain evolution. (Allen Institute Photo)

The center’s co-leaders are Michael Greenberg and David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

Skalak said the Boston-based center will trace how the modern brain developed, and whether there are links between heightened cognition and susceptibility to such conditions as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and depression.

“It’s a fine line when you’re adding novelty and capability to an organism’s function,” he explained. “If you add too much novelty, it can lead to disorder.”

The center’s researchers will look for clues in scientific fields ranging from ancient DNA tomodern human behavior. They’ll follow up on the most promising clues with animal studies, with the hope of identifying ways to combat neurological maladies, Skalak said.

To build upon the initial four-year grant, the centers will be allowed to apply for another $10 million for the four years that follow, to be matched by other funding.

Allen founded the Frontiers Group last year with a long-term commitment to put $100 million toward cutting-edge biomedical research. The first two Allen Discovery Centers were established at Stanford University, to focus on computer modeling for cellular systems, and how those systems interact with their environment; and at Tufts University to work out the biological code that determines anatomical structure and function.

In addition to the four centers, the Frontiers Group provides $1.5 million grants to biotech investigators. Shendure, Elowitz and Walsh are among previous recipients of investigator grants, and five new grants were announced just last month

Allen, whose net worth has most recently been estimated at more than $20 billion, also supports research through institutes focusing on brain science, cell science and artificial intelligence.

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