Sean Parker is deathly allergic to peanuts. If he accidentally eats a rogue nut and doesn’t receive an epinephrine injection, he will stop breathing.
Parker’s struggle with life-threatening allergies hasn’t stopped him from achieving fortune (as the first investor in Facebook), fame (Justin Timberlake played him as a charismatic hustler in the film The Social Network), and a track record for changing entire industries (remember Napster?). It did, however, inspire him to spend countless hours in an Internet rabbit hole researching the mysteries of the human immune response.
“I’m totally fascinated by the immune system,” he told me by phone this week, while trying to escape the New York rain. “Like my interest in other scientific fields, I took a deeper dive and got more and more invested.”
In December 2014, he got his feet wet by making a $24 million donation to the Stanford University School of Medicine, which is earmarked for allergy research. Today, he is announcing the $250 million-funded Parker Institute, a research effort to develop targeted therapies to treat cancer, which is noteworthy in its ability to evade the immune system. That’s the single largest financial contribution to the field of immunotherapy ever. It’s also Parker’s most ambitious effort in biotech.
To discover breakthrough therapies, Parker has personally helped recruit a brain trust of more than 40 laboratories and 300 researchers from the top cancer centers, including MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Penn Medicine, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Strategic advisers include Jeff Huber, a longtime Googler who is now working to develop a blood test for cancer detection, and executives from a variety of pharma companies including Amgen and Merck. Dr. Jeff Bluestone, a well-known researcher and a former provost at UCSF, is leading the initiative as its chief executive offer. “I’ve been following the explosion of cancer immunotherapies in the past five years,” Bluestone says. “I met Sean a few times, and he asked if I’d join.”
Parker seems confident he can create momentum outside the ivory towers of medical research, even though $250 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of drug development, which is typically in the billions. The Parker Institute is hoping that its partners, the pharmaceutical companies, will fund the early clinical trials and shoulder the costs of bringing a new therapy to market. “From my perspective as an entrepreneur, I know we can see results faster,” he says. He’s identified two major flaws with research today: The lack of collaboration between researchers, and the frequent intellectual property disputes over new technologies.
As a condition of partnering with the Parker Institute, researchers are expected to work with each other instead of pursuing personal glory. They must also agree to license any new technology they develop through the institute. After watching scientists behind one of most important biotech breakthroughs in recent history, a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, get embroiled in a messy legal battle over patents, Parker is desperate to avoid a scenario in which technologies sit on the shelf for decades while researchers duke it out in court.
“I joke around that if you were to roll back the clock and design an industry or field that would produce a breakthrough technology for treating patients and curing disease, this is the last structure you would come up with,” Parker adds.
In 2011, Parker’s good friend, the legendary film producer Laura Ziskin, passed away from breast cancer. The two had frequently discussed the potential of immunotherapy, which was also a subject close to Ziskin’s heart. After she died, Parker set about quietly deploying capital into immunotherapy. “I set up a dream team in the scientific establishment, which hadn’t embraced the idea yet,” he says.
But the field quickly entered into a kind of renaissance. Today, immunotherapy is central to the Obama Administration’s “moonshot” to cure cancer. Vice President Joe Biden recently predicted that immunotherapy will progress cancer research more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 50.
Broadly speaking, cancer immunotherapy researchers seek to understand the mechanisms by which cancer cells evade detection. They are bringing new therapies to market, notably immune checkpoint inhibitors, which help the immune system recognize and target cancer cells as foreign. These therapies are more specific than chemotherapy, which causes damage to many healthy cells.
“The way I describe it to my patients is to think about the last time they had a bacterial infection and got really sick,” says Dr. Dale Shepard, a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “That’s an example of a robust immune response.” By contrast, some of Shepard’s patients have advanced cancers that present with few symptoms. “I see patients all the time that have five-inch tumors that are totally ignored by the immune system.”
Oncologists like Shepard are cautiously optimistic about the prospects of cancer immunotherapy, as they’ve seen it work firsthand. Some of the newest treatments, which have been most effective at treating kidney, colon, prostate, and lung cancers, have brought some of Shepard’s patients with advanced tumors back from the brink of death. The therapies have even proved tolerable to nonagenarians, like former president Jimmy Carter. But for some patients, such as those with slower-growing cancers, the response has been minimal at best.
That said, cancer immunotherapy is not quite a home run yet. The next step for researchers is to better understand why some patients aren’t receptive to immunotherapies at all, while others show near-miraculous improvement. Oncologists are also hoping to see new therapies for hematologic cancers, like leukemias and lymphomas. Some 1,500 cancer immunotherapy drugs are currently in the research and development pipeline.
Bluestone, who is heading up the Parker Initiative, has already scoped out some near-term research initiatives for the coming year, such as new ways to modify T-cells (the immune system’s anti-cancer warriors) to better recognize and kill cancer cells. Additionally, the initiative will provide sophisticated technology to labs such as machines for DNA sequencing. And Bluestone is researching how to apply medical imaging technology, which can offer a three-dimensional picture of tissues and tumors to better understand how these cells communicate with each other. “We want to look deeper than ever before,” he says. “We want to identify what cancers come back, and seek out subtle changes in the immune system that we can exploit.”
Dr. Prateek Mendiratta is a clinical associate of medicine at Duke Cancer Center. He treats patients with cancer every day, and is keeping a watchful eye on developments in the field of immunotherapy. I ask Mendiratta for his thoughts on Sean Parker making a big impact in the space.
“Oh wow,” he said, seemingly puzzled that a household-name tech billionaire would want to plant a flag in this particular area of research. But on further reflection, Mendiratta came around to the idea of Silicon Valley types investing their time and resources into the space. “We have to keep thinking outside the box,” he says. “If more patients can see durable responses and remissions, I’m excited to see people outside of the industry step in.”
The oncologists I spoke to recognized that physicians desperately need a new set of tools to treat patients. And if an outsider from the tech industry can do it, all power to them.
For his part, Parker asks every researcher who wants to get involved about the projects they wish they were doing (a very Silicon Valley question). He says he wants to fund the ideas that have been deemed “too complicated or too ambitious” for the status quo.
Shepard is ready for this kind of thinking. “It’s a daily frustration for me that traditional chemotherapies don’t work as well as we’d like,” he says. “I think enough people are willing now to stand up and do the right thing for patients, even if that means changing the way we do things.”