Health & Science

California Tech Money Headed To Houston For Cancer Immunotherapy Research

Sean Parker, formerly of Facebook and Napster, turns his philanthropic efforts towards cutting-edge cancer research

Katie Couric interviews cancer immunotherapy scientists who will join the $250 million, nationwide research collaboration. From left: Carl June, University of Pennsylvania; Jim Allison of MD Anderson; Antoni Ribas, UCLA; Lewis Lanier, UCSF, Crystal Mackall, Stanford Medicine; Jedd Wolchok, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker, who helped start Napster and Facebook, is pouring $250 million dollars into immunotherapy research for cancer. Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center, along with researchers at five other cancers centers in the U.S., will take part in the partnership.

The focus of The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco are techniques that prod the body’s own immune system to attack cancer.

One example is the breakthrough melanoma drug Yervoy. Dr. Jim Allison, now at MD Anderson, developed Yervoy after learning how to unleash the power of the immune cells called T-cells.

Parker recognizes that immunotherapy is at a critical tipping point, and needs support to continue basic research that won’t turn a profit right away, Allison said.  

“Sean has a passion for immunotherapy and I think he sees it as really novel, and a whole different way of looking at things,” Allison said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles before the announcement ceremony.

Immunotherapy research operated at the margins of cancer science for decades, but after the launch of Yervoy in 2011, followed by similar drugs, the field attracted immense attention and is now hailed for its innovations.

“He respects that, he’s been sort of a disruptor himself over the years, with Napster and Facebook and stuff like that,” Allison said.

Six cancer centers will participate in the partnership, sharing research money and also scientific results.

“What we’ve learned at MD Anderson in the last couple of years is you really have to look inside the tumor and see what’s going on if you if you want to know why therapies are working and not working,” Allison said.

Allison says researchers at MD Anderson are already doing that type of analysis, using a mass cytometry machine they purchased with money from the Parker Foundation. The half-million dollar instrument can analyze tumor tissue and identify 40 different characteristics, such as the presence or absence of certain proteins inside or outside a malignant cell.

Allison will co-direct the Parker-backed efforts at MD Anderson, along with Dr. Padmanee Sharma, a specialist in genitourinary cancers and immunology research.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Sharma said. “I think finally immunotherapy will have the resources it needs, that we can develop combination strategies and research some of the strategies that are currently not working for all tumor types.”

The other centers in the partnership are Stanford, UCLA, UC San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York.

The Parker Institute aims to unify “research programs, intellectual property licensing, data collection, and clinical trials across multiple centers under the umbrella of a single non-profit biomedical research organization,” according to a press release.

 

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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