SEATTLE – April 11, 2014 – The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced today the award of Allen Distinguished Investigators (ADI) grants to three groups of researchers working in the field of cell lineage – a central and urgent quest in biology and medicine. Since 2010, the Foundation has supported and empowered select high-risk, high-reward scientists who are positioned to take on the unconventional and unexpected through the ADI program. Scientists from Northwestern University, CalTech and the University of Washington will gain support to illuminate the origin of cell type and the effects of this process on human life and disease. The Foundation is awarding three research teams between $1 million and $1.2 million in funding each for a total of $3.2 million over three years.

Human cell lineage is the story of how all of us grow from a single cell to 100 trillion cells as cells divide, die and renew to work together in the complex system that is the human body. This field of study looks to understand the process of cell division, renewal and death, as well as how cells in a developing embryo diversify into many distinct cell types. By knowing more about the progression through which a cell type is formed, we can uncover the mysteries of this process – aberrations that can cause cancer, auto-immune diseases and neuro-degenerative disorders.

The study of human cell lineage has the potential to profoundly impact science and human understanding and push the boundaries of current knowledge. With the Foundation’s ADI program, research such as this – at the cusp of understanding – is made possible. ADIs are scientists who are working in unconventional ways with nontraditional ideas. They are ready to take risks for real impact. By supporting innovative and cutting-edge scientists, the Foundation is working to answer big, open questions that will advance the state of human knowledge, push the boundary of scientific inquiry and collectively move the needle. 

“With the ADI program, we seek out scientists and ideas that are not proven or tested – but promise big impact. We look for the curious and the bold,” said Jody Allen, co-founder and president of The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “This particular ADI focus on human cell lineage has the potential to unlock some of the most fundamental mysteries about human life and reveal deeper understanding in the field of science.”

About the ADI Recipients

The researchers being awarded are working to advance single-cell tracking methods within the human cell lineage field. This focus on following one individual cell – which often involves techniques such as barcoding – will help to map and track the development of certain cells and the relationships and hierarchies that develop in the process. By doing so, the ADIs will generate greater information about how cells develop and interact in the formation of new, healthy tissue and in the development of disease. The ADI recipients are:

Dr. Neil Kelleher, Northwestern University
Walter and Mary Elizabeth Glass Professor in the Life Sciences
Departments of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Department of Medicine in the Feinberg School of Medicine

Dr. Neil Kelleher will focus on scanning and mapping how B-cells mature from their beginnings in our bone marrow to protecting us from infection. Specifically, he’ll look to understand how deviations in this process can result in cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma. Kelleher’s research will inform and complement other efforts toward cell-based therapies, personalized drugs and improved detection of human disease.

Dr. Michael Elowitz, California Institute of Technology
Professor of Biology, Bioengineering and Applied Physics
, and
Dr. Long Cai, California Institute of Technology
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Dr. Michael Elowitz and Dr. Long Cai will develop a platform to extract lineage and molecular event histories from cells developing into tissues, particularly in the brain. This research will help to address one of the most fascinating questions in biology – how individual cells in a developing embryo diversify into many distinct cell types, each playing its unique role in the organism.

Dr. Jay Shendure, University of Washington School of Medicine
Associate Professor, Department of Genome Sciences
Dr. Marshall Horwitz, University of Washington School of Medicine
Professor, Pathology, and Adjunct Professor, Genome Sciences

Dr. Jay Shendure and Dr. Marshall Horwitz are pursuing a new approach for mapping cell fate – how a cell becomes one type or another. Rather than trying to decode the history of each cell among the trillions in the human body, they are relying on mutations in the genome that occur during cell division and using this inverse information to enable a 4D visualization of the entire cell map of an individual human being..

Visit the 2014 ADI Lineage Barcode page for more information. 

Matt Smedley
Edelman for The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation