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April 13, 2016

With $250M Grant, Sean Parker Launches Cancer Immunotherapy Institute

  • Investigators from six cancer centers are joining forces to develop cancer immunotherapies through a new research institute launched today with a $250 million grant from Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sean Parker.

    Through his Parker Foundation, the co-founder of Napster and Facebook’s first president has created the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. The institute will bring together more than 300 researchers from 40 laboratories across the six cancer centers.

    “We believe that the creation of a new funding and research model can overcome many of the obstacles that currently prevent research breakthroughs,” Parker said in a statement. “Working closely with our scientists and more than 30 industry partners, the Parker Institute is positioned to broadly disseminate discoveries and, most importantly, more rapidly deliver treatments to patients.”

    The six centers include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; and the University of Pennsylvania.

    Each center will receive initial funding of $10 million to $15 million over the first year to establish the Parker Institute. That funding will grow annually through additional project grants, shared resources, and central funding.

    Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform at MD Anderson, said in a statement issued by the cancer center that the Parker Institute has chosen three research priorities:

    • Developing novel approaches to modify T cells to enhance their function and then develop a new generation of more effective T-cell therapies.
    • Comparing patients who respond to checkpoint inhibitors, those who don’t respond, and those who relapse to improve rates of durable responses and broaden the use of these drugs alone or in combination.
    • Conducting DNA sequencing, immune monitoring, and antigen discovery to identify new targets for therapeutic vaccines and T cell therapies.

    “By bringing institutions with different strengths and expertise together, providing stable funding and access to truly cutting-edge technologies, the Parker Institute empowers us to make big strides in cancer immunotherapy,” Dr. Allison added.

    UCSF immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, Ph.D., has been named the Parker institute’s first president. Dr. Bluestone—one of 28 people named this month to a Blue Ribbon Panel that will guide Vice President Joe Biden’s national cancer “moonshot” initiative, remains A.W. and Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor at UCSF and will continue to oversee an active research program at the University.

    While at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, Dr. Bluestone and colleagues discovered that a protein called cytotoxic T-lymphocyte associated protein 4 (CTLA-4) can act as a “checkpoint” or brake on immune response—a discovery since applied in the development of cancer immunotherapies.

    According to MD Anderson, Dr. Allison made the same discovery independently, then applied it to cancer treatment by developing an antibody to block CTLA-4, unleashing a T-cell attack on cancer, in mouse model experiments that succeeded against a variety of cancers.

    A committee with members from each cancer center as well as representatives of the Parker Institute will review potential licensing deals covering patented discoveries made by the cancer center researchers, which would be shared 50-50 with the institute.

    Parker told Reuters the institute would not pursue licensing deals until later in the research process, or even after a drug has been approved by regulators, with any profits being funneled back into the institute.

    Parker added that he was inspired to fund cancer research after watching his friend Laura Ziskin, producer of the film “Pretty Woman” and founder of Stand Up To Cancer, succumb to the disease in 2011: “Losing Laura transformed me.”

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