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Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 08:46 AM

Paul Allen gives $7.5 million to young scientists with big ideas

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times science reporter

Suckjoon Jun was talking with students when the phone rang, so he cut off the call. The phone rang again. On the third try, Jun, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Diego, picked up the receiver and found Paul Allen’s Seattle foundation on the line.

“I was absolutely astonished,” said Jun, who discovered he would be receiving a $1.6 million grant from the billionaire Microsoft co-founder.

When he applied for funding under the Allen Distinguished Investigators program, Jun figured he was a longshot. The previous winners were mostly seasoned veterans in biomedical research, and he was just starting his career.

But Allen and his foundation have revamped the initiative this year to focus on young scientists with big ideas. Of the five new research projects announced Thursday that will share in a total of $7.5 million, not one is led by tenured professors.

The goal is to provide a career boost for scientists with the potential to make major discoveries, Allen said in a statement.

“I’ve always been drawn to the big open questions of science,” he said. “But the pioneering scientists working to answer them can’t promise quick discoveries and often find it difficult to get funding from traditional sources.”

In addition to Jun, the grant winners are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC-San Francisco, Stanford and Yale.

Jun will use his grant to study the way cells sense their own size and decide when to divide. “It sounds pretty simple, but we have no clue,” he said.

The research is still at a basic stage, but eventually may help explain the runaway cell replication that leads to cancer, Jun added.

Allen launched his distinguished-investigator program in 2010, the same year he pledged to give away the bulk of his estimated $15 billion fortune.

The program is small compared with Allen’s $500 million investment in the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, his biggest philanthropic endeavor. Allen also has helped fund a telescope to search for extraterrestrial life and backed the development of a private spaceship.

The distinguished-investigator grants for 2013 all focus on fundamental explorations of cells and their properties, said Susan Coliton, the foundation’s vice president. “Breakthrough science was the key thing for us.”

Markus Covert, of Stanford University, will get $1.5 million over three years to build on his pioneering computer model that replicates the inner workings of a cell.

The main reason cures for cancer and many other diseases remain so elusive is their complexity, Covert said. “Cancer is not a one-gene problem, it’s hundreds of genes, it’s the environment and all kinds of other factors.”

Working with cells in silica, researchers may be able to tease apart those interactions and design new drugs or even engineer bacteria to do useful things, like produce biofuels.

The Allen grant will allow Covert and his colleagues to expand their model from the simplest bacteria to more complicated cells.

And there’s a good chance it won’t come out the way he envisions.

“What I work on tends to be high-risk, high-reward stuff,” Covert said. So it’s particularly gratifying to be recognized by Allen, whose early computer work fit the same mold.

“Here’s somebody who knows what it’s like to be right at the cutting edge and change the world,” Covert said. “So if he thinks it’s worth a shot, that makes me feel great.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com


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