Napster cofounder Sean Parker gives cancer immunotherapy development a boost

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, shown at a gala in Beverly Hills this year, has pledged $250 million to fund coordinated research on cancer immunotherapies.

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, shown at a gala in Beverly Hills this year, has pledged $250 million to fund coordinated research on cancer immunotherapies.

(Jordan Strauss / Invision)

Fueled by a $250-million commitment of funds by Napster cofounder Sean Parker, researchers from more than 40 laboratories and six of the nation’s leading cancer research centers have entered into a first-of-its-kind collaboration to accelerate the development of cancer immunotherapies.

Under the aegis of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which launches Wednesday, researchers working in this once-obscure field will share their research findings, coordinate their clinical trials, establish common tissue banks and strike licensing deals with pharmaceutical companies to bring new cancer treatments to the market.

After decades of false starts, harnessing the human immune system to prevent, disrupt and overwhelm cancer has become one of the most promising fronts in the war against the disease. That progress has been greatly accelerated by advances in genetic sequencing and cellular engineering, as well as by a growing understanding of the immune system’s power and complexity.


Several “checkpoint inhibitor” drugs, which release the immune system’s natural brakes so that it can attack cancers, have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are showing early successes in treating melanoma and cancers of the lungs and kidneys. But more than 1,500 additional cancer immunotherapy drugs are in the research-and-development pipeline, making this field the second-largest incubator of drug development.

For all the emerging evidence of its promise, Parker said in an interview Tuesday night, “this is a classic example of where the funding system around medical research was really slow to adapt” -- and where academic and commercial secrecy has impeded progress. Funded by his philanthropy and guided by a board of directors and scientific steering committee devoted to making progress in this field, Parker said that worthy research on cancer immunotherapies will no longer die for lack of funding, recognition or academic commitment.

“Academic science sometimes needs a bit of help” translating basic science into therapies that can be developed, tested and brought to market, said Parker, who will announce the launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy on Wednesday morning in Los Angeles. “Our mission is actually to get treatments to patients. We’re operating as a clearinghouse to make sure all these get breakthroughs get to patients.”

The six academic institutions that will coordinate their efforts on immunotherapies are: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, UCLA, UC San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Specifically, Parker said his institute will place its initial bets on three broad areas of research: developing a new generation of T-cell therapies; investigating new uses for, and effective new combinations of, the kinds of “checkpoint inhibitor” drugs that have already proved effective for skin, lung and kidney cancers; and improving the effectiveness and potential uses for vaccines and cellular therapies in fighting a wider array of cancers.

“I have a great belief in focus,” said Parker, a former Facebook president. “We can’t do everything well.” But, he added, by focusing on one broad swath of research--and breaking down barriers to researchers’ cooperation--”we want to just do one thing well.”


Parker’s $250-million commitment of funds to the project is the largest philanthropic underwriting of research in this field. In an interview, Parker said he had “done a deep dive” on immunotherapy (in 2014, he donated $24 million to Stanford University Medical School for allergy research), and found the field “a good intellectual challenge.”

Parker said he was also “galvanized” by the commitment of Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin (“Pretty Woman,” “Spider-Man”), who cofounded Stand Up to Cancer and died in 2011.

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