Sean Parker Just Gave $250M to the Darling of Cancer Research
Napster, Facebook, cancer immunotherapy. One of these sounds it like doesn’t belong, but what they all have in common is Sean Parker. The tech billionaire who so presciently jumped on file-sharing and social networking is now giving $250 million to the current darling of cancer research, which is all about triggering the immune system to fight cancer cells.
It’s hard to overstate how hot immunotherapy is right now. (Some points of pop culture comparison: cronut, Furby, Facebook circa 2005.) Just last month, Johns Hopkins launched its own immunotherapy research center with $125 million, most of it from billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Sidney Kimmel. And immunotherapy is one big plank of Vice President Biden’s proposed $1 billion cancer moonshot. Pharma companies, meanwhile, are hungry for more immunotherapies to fill their pipelines.
The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy won’t just give out money: It wants to bridge academic research and the pharmaceutical industry. On one side, Parker has brought in a who’s who of immunotherapy experts to head six centers at existing research institutions. “He went to some major football teams, took the best players off the team, and said I’m going to give you money to do what you do best,” says Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, one of the few organizations not involved with the Parker Institute. Heading up the institute will be Jeff Bluestone, a UCSF biologist whose research in the ‘90s helped create one of the first cancer immunotherapies.
On the other side, the institute has 37 partners in the industry, including traditional pharma companies (Pfizer), hot startups (Juno Therapeutics), and nonprofits (the American Association for Cancer Research). The institute wants everyone—and we’re not kidding about everyone—in immunotherapy to work together.
What does this mean practically? Cancer research is high stakes, and like most things high stakes, it can be cutthroat. Pulling together experts at six major centers—UCSF, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, MD Anderson, and Memorial Sloan Kettering—gets those minds working with rather than against each other. (It helps that the directors of these six centers are longtime friends and colleagues. As Lewis Lanier, director of the UCSF center says, “Jim Allison”—director of the MD Anderson center—“used to sleep on my couch in Menlo Park.”) The researchers have honed in on three lines of inquiry: modifying T-cells to attack cancer, finding off-switches for cancer cells, and identifying so-called checkpoint inhibitors that let cancer cells hide from the immune system.
The Parker Institute will also get the six organizations to work together on clinical trials. When a pharma company wants to test a drug against a rare form of cancer, it might take two years to enroll enough patients at any single location. With the new institute, they’ll get access to patients at six locations while dealing with only one set of lawyers. “Pharma loves this,” says Lanier. “It saves them months of bickering back and forth.”
One set of lawyers will deal with all of the patents that come out of institute-funded research, too. The Parker Institute will try out a new model, sharing a portion of those patents with the centers and universities where affiliated researchers work. (If those patents ever turn into blockbuster drugs, that money will go back to funding the institute’s research.) It also helps break down patent-induced research headaches: Immunotherapies often work better in combination, but it’s hard to get different companies to all sign on for a trial. “One company owns one, another owns another one, and never the twain shall meet,” says Crystal Mackall, director of the institute’s Stanford center. If the Parker Institute has the patents to all the relevant immunotherapies and crafts the license agreement with pharma companies, that’s no longer a problem.
Parker’s $250 million gift comes at a time when federal funding for biomedical research has been flat—or falling if you adjust for inflation. (The $1 billion cancer moonshot is, for now, mostly still just talk.) As scientists like to bemoan, writing long grant applications eats into research time and often comes up empty—the National Cancer Institute, the country’s biggest funder of cancer research, funds only 14.1 percent of applications. The NCI doesn’t break out exactly how much money it spends on immunotherapy research each year, but it’s roughly the same order of magnitude as the Parker’s contribution. Two hundred and fifty million dollars frees up a lot of grant writing time.
Brawley remembers when immunotherapy was in its infancy in the ‘90s, when it was ignored for the hot topic of the day: cancer growth inhibitors. Millions of research dollars poured into the field with few great treatments to show. “Immunotherapy is really important but it’s not the only important lead in oncology,” he says. “I hope we don’t make that mistake again, where we put all our money behind immunotherapy and not support others.” Brawley points to precision medicine as another key field for cancer research in the future. Billionaires out there, here’s your chance.
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