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Rewriting Life

Sean Parker’s $250 Million Bet on Hacking the Immune System to Beat Cancer

A Facebook billionaire makes a major investment in immunotherapy.

Cancer doctor Cassian Yee remembers how in 2010 he was called to Los Angeles to meet the Internet billionaire Sean Parker. Parker wanted Yee to help the Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin, then fighting breast cancer, with an immune-cell treatment never before used to treat that condition. “We’ll give you whatever you need—we’ll put you on an island to do it,” Parker told Yee. A few weeks later a very big check arrived by mail to buy some crucial equipment.

Parker’s friend Ziskin didn’t live—the treatment she got was last-ditch—but today Parker is following through by giving out $250 million through a new institute he is creating to speed up the development and testing of immunotherapies, a hot area of cancer research.

The donation, the largest of any yet made for immunotherapy, will fund six new “Parker Institutes” at the University of Pennsylvania, MD Anderson Cancer Center (where Yee now works), Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, and three other institutions.

Parker’s charity, based in San Francisco, will have its own central staff of about 50 and will act a little like a biotechnology company by patenting inventions and trying to license them. Jeffrey Bluestone, the University of California, San Francisco, immunologist tapped to be the Parker Institute’s CEO, calls the new model “academic biopharma.”

Parker, 36, rose to fame for cofounding the pirate music network Napster and later became Facebook’s first president, a role that netted him a fortune valued by Forbes at $2.4 billion.  

Sean Parker

The entrepreneur, who created a charitable foundation to give $600 million of that money away, said last year he was looking for situations where “because of some novel insight, the problem is essentially hackable, there is a relatively short-term way of having a large impact.”

Immune therapy appears to qualify. Over the last few years, scientists have demonstrated that unblocking or redirecting the body’s immune cells can set them on the attack and make some types of cancer evaporate. Now the question is how far, and how fast, the immune therapy idea can go.

Parker’s money alone won’t defeat cancer. In fact, there’s no shortage of resources. The National Cancer Institute spends $5 billion a year, and drug companies spend even more. “It’s not a resource issue, it’s a resource allocation issue,” Parker told Bloomberg last summer. “We hack systems that can be hacked and ignore the rest.”

Parker is expected to announce the new immunotherapy institute Wednesday in Los Angeles. About 30 cancer organizations and companies have signed on as potential partners, including Bristol-Myers, Pfizer, and Merck.

The timing could be right for an infusion of social-network cash into cancer labs. Drugs that modulate the immune system, as well as genetically engineered immune cells, offer near miraculous rescues for some patients. The problem: the treatments so far only help a small fraction of patients, or those with very specific cancers.

The question now is how to expand on immunotherapy’s initial success. That has scientists racing toward second-generation drugs, new antigen vaccines, and cells altered with more complex DNA programs.

Parker’s initial funding of medical research began several years ago, in part motivated by his own experience suffering from asthma and allergies, which are also caused by the immune system. “He has the twinkle in his eye of a first-year grad student when I start to talk about immunotherapy,” says Lewis Lanier, the immunologist who is head of a new Parker Institute at UCSF, and who says he’s started spending the money on research using gene editing to alter immune cells, as well as finding new ways to treat brain cancer.

Bluestone, who will split his time between UCSF and Parker’s offices in San Francisco’s Presidio neighborhood, says he will hire 50 to 60 people to do business development and computer programming there to support the six research centers, each of which will receive $10 to $15 million to begin with.

One unusual feature of Parker’s operation is that it’s convinced the six huge cancer centers to allow it to pursue immune therapy patents on their behalf and also license them, or even spin out companies. It will also take a 10 to 15 percent cut of the revenue generated by those patents, which it will plow back into funding. Bluestone says researchers would also be required to share data and the latest clinical study results.

“We’re not a biotech, but we hope to act a bit more like a company to drive those discoveries towards drug development,” says Bluestone. “We are allowing people to make big bets, take big risks, and do research that they don’t think would be funded otherwise. We’re looking for that Goldilocks sweet spot.”

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