When David Baker, Ph.D., talks about protein design with non-scientists, he’ll start with cavemen — even though this induces some eye-rolling among his students.
When cave dwellers made tools of found objects, such as rocks, sticks and bones, says Baker, they were borrowing from nature; humans didn’t need to know much about these items to find them useful. Creating brand-new proteins, on the other hand — taking amino acid strands, folding them and creating proteins to address problems like the flu — requires a great deal of knowledge and a decidedly post-caveman approach. One that invents, rather than borrows.
“We see what nature can do,” says Baker, the director of UW Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design (IPD) and the Henrietta and Aubrey Davis Endowed Professor in Biochemistry. “But now we’re building things from first principles, from scratch.”
The Open Philanthropy Project, based in California and created by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz (a co-founder of Facebook and Asana), just invested $11.3 million in the IPD’s approach. Some of the funds will support research into a universal flu vaccine. The rest will be used to improve the Rosetta software that helps predict protein properties — key not only to the flu, but to all the IPD’s projects.
Baker is delighted by the gift. “Everything depends on how accurate the models are and making the methods better,” he says.
The Open Philanthropy Project was created in 2014 to identify outstanding giving opportunities, make grants, follow the results, and publish its findings on issues ranging from global catastrophic risks, to criminal justice reform, to scientific research.
“Scientific progress is one of the biggest contributors to human well-being, and we hope to play a part in accelerating it,” says Chris Somerville, one of Open Philanthropy’s scientific research program officers. “Cultivating the IPD’s ability to design vaccines quickly could reduce the risk of a future epidemic, one that might otherwise kill tens of millions of people.”
Creating a universal flu vaccine is a tall order, but Baker notes that the IPD already has a good start. A few years ago, researchers designed a from-scratch nanoparticle that, because of its virus-like shape, provokes the immune system to respond. They hope to load it with proteins from multiple strains of the flu.
“Since we can design things exactly the way we want them, we have more control. We believe we can create nanoparticles that will induce a much stronger immune response against flu strains,” Baker says.
As it happens, the Open Philanthropy Project’s partnership came at an opportune time. The idea was ready for major investment, but the research was riskier than projects usually taken on by government or corporate grantors.
“It’s too avant-garde. It’s really next-generation technology, which is not the sort of thing they typically fund,” Baker says. Since the funding from Open Philanthropy arrived, however, Baker has been working on the two projects, flu and Rosetta, nearly non-stop. His energy and enthusiasm are palpable.
“You always worry about money,” says Baker. “And then to have this gift — we could just go all in. It’s so exciting.”