publication date: Apr. 18, 2016

Parker Bets $250 Million on Immunotherapy 


A foundation established by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker—founder of Napster and first president of Facebook—has committed $250 million to research in cancer immunotherapy.

The newly founded Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy brings together immunologists from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University, UCLA, UCSF, MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Pennsylvania.

“We hope to raise additional funds, both by philanthropy and partnerships with industry and government,” said Jeff Bluestone, president and CEO of the Parker Institute and the A.W. and Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Also, we expect to expand the number of investigators involved in the institute,” Bluestone said to The Cancer Letter.

The initial amount of funding is $10 million to $15 million per center—about $60 to $90 million in the first year—and it will grow over seven years as the program gets going.

This level of spending on research establishes the new foundation as either the second or third largest private funder of cancer research—and the single largest funder of cancer immunotherapy research.

In 2015, the American Cancer Society spent about $150 million on research, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society spent about $67 million, Susan G. Komen spent about $54 million, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation spent about $32 million.

Parker’s objective is to unify the research programs, intellectual property licensing, data collection and clinical trials across multiple centers under the umbrella of a single non-profit biomedical research organization.

“The idea is to push people to take risks and to collaborate,” said Jedd Wolchok, head of the Parker-funded center at MSKCC. “The really important message that we got from the beginning was, ‘Collaboration is key.’ Of course, that’s not new, the idea that team science is very important. Stand Up To Cancer [and] many organizations have been focusing on team science—but here, it’s a mantra: ‘Collaborate like hell.’ It’s time to come out of the siloes and to make progress together.

“The really novel part of this is the idea that some quality sites were identified, were given a very generous donation by someone who does study the field, but the researchers are set loose to form their own agenda.”

A conversation with Wolchok appears here.

The institute unites over 40 laboratories, more than 300 researchers and over 30 industry partners.

The directors of the six Parker-funded centers are:

Jedd Wolchok, associate attending physician and chief of the Melanoma and Immunotherapeutics Service at MSKCC.

Crystal Mackall, professor of pediatrics and of medicine, associate director of the Stanford Medical Institute, co-medical director of the Stanford Laboratory for Cell and Gene Medicine and program leader in pediatric cancer immunotherapy.

Antoni Ribas, professor of medicine, professor of surgery and professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA.

Lewis Lanier, professor and the Microbiology and Immunology Chair at UCSF.

Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, and director of translational research at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.

James Allison, professor and chair of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

A roster of scientists involved in the program is available here.

Parker’s initiative is part of what appears to be a growing trend by philanthropists and the federal government to fund focused forays into cancer research.

Parker’s goal is to fund a multi-institutional approach to immunotherapy. At the same time, billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Sidney Kimmel, as well as a group of other donors last month, committed $125 million to establish an immunotherapy research center at Johns Hopkins.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife Penny gave $500 million to the Oregon Health & Science University to create the first large-scale program dedicated to early detection of lethal cancers. OHSU matched the Knights’ gift (The Cancer Letter, June 26, 2015).

The federal government’s $1 billion cancer moonshot initiative appears to be aiming at a broad range of targets. NCI recently announced the appointment of 28 members to a blue ribbon panel charged with completing a plan by the end of the year—three weeks before inauguration of the next president.

The federal initiative gives $195 million to NIH in 2016. The fate of the remaining funds—$680 million for NIH; $75 million for FDA and $50 million for DOD—will be determined by who wins the presidential election and what Washington will look like in 2017 (The Cancer Letter, April 1; Feb. 26; Feb. 12; Jan. 22; Jan. 15).

“Sean and the Parker Institute are, I believe, setting a bold new standard for how philanthropy can really move the needle in serious ways for patients,” said Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research and a member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Strategic Advisory Group,” said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

Parker has “drafted an all-star team of immunotherapists,” Brawley said. “I am very glad to see something like this happen. My only concern is when I look at the future of cancer treatment, I see immunotherapy as part of the answer, I see targeted genomic therapy as part of the answer, I see targeted metabolic therapy as part of the answer, and I hope we fund all of these things and don’t slight all of them the way immunotherapy has been slighted over the past 25 years.”


Art by Katherine Pavlovna Goldberg


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