Facebook, Napster pioneer Sean Parker sets up $250M immuno-oncology center

Billionaire Silicon Valley veteran Sean Parker will inject $250 million into the immuno-oncology research field in an effort to boost cancer survival rates.

Parker, founder of the music file sharing site Napster and the former president of Facebook, will give the money as a grant to 6 cancer centers nationwide, including Houston's University of Texas MD Anderson and New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering.

These centers will form the “Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy” and will include over 40 laboratories and more than 300 researchers from across the 6 sites.

This builds on the $600 million Parker put up to launch the Parker Foundation last year, with a particular focus on life sciences, and also comes after he told FierceBiotech last year that he was moving into something big for immuno-oncology. 

The Parker Institute will be based in San Francisco and each of the cancer centers in the consortium has agreed to send their top scientists to join the Institute and relinquish considerable control over their research.

Its focus will on the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy, which is currently being led by Bristol-Myers Squibb’s ($BMY) Opdivo and Merck’s ($MRK) Keytruda, with a new PD-L1 drug from Roche ($RHHBY) expected to be approved by the FDA later this year. Together, the drugs target certain forms of lung cancer, skin cancer, and bladder cancer. 

These drugs are however currently used fairly far down the treatment pathway--Parker said he wants these new types of drugs to be used as first-line treatments as a matter of course.

This new class of oncology treatment uses the body’s immune system to help fight cancer, but not all patients benefit and average survival benefits are usually measured in months and sometimes just weeks. Parker’s own attempt at a “cancer Moonshot” will attempt to increase this, with a focus on cross-pollination research and openness.  

This comes three months after President Obama called for a $1 billion federal cancer research program that he dubbed a “Moonshot”, as the government hopes to foster collaboration between typically competing hospitals.

Parker told Reuters that sharing was key to the process for his Institute, and that any breakthrough made at one center “is immediately available to another center without any kind of IP entanglements or bureaucracy.”

He added: “Very little progress [in drug research] has been made over the last several decades. Average life expectancy has only increased three to six months with some of these drugs that cost billions to develop.”

The Institute has identified three key areas of research it will look to focus on, namely: modifying a patient's own immune system T-cells to target a tumor; studying ways to boost patient response to current immunotherapy drugs; and research to identify other novel targets to attack a tumor.

The money will also be a plus to scientists who spend a large percentage of their time trying to secure grants, although billions will be needed to bring new therapies to market. 

Parker said the business strategy would work by holding off on licensing deals until later in the research process--or even after a drug has been approved by regulators, with any profits being put back into the institute. Patented discoveries made by the cancer center researchers will be shared 50-50 with the institute.

Jeff Bluestone, a professor at UCSF and an early researcher of immunotherapy, has been appointed president of the Parker Institute.

The University of Pennsylvania is one of the 6 centers and has gained an initial funding boost of $10 to 15 million to set up the Parker Institute at Penn.

The University said this investment will continue to grow on an annual basis via additional project grants, shared resources and central funding, and will be spent on support lab studies and clinical trials, recruitment of a new faculty, and support for early-career investigators who will train at Penn.

One of the areas of focus is to develop more effective chimeric antigen receptor therapies (CART)--something June’s team specialises in has shown to have major promise in the treatment of blood cancers--to treat a broader range of oncology targets. CART is one of the hot tickets in cancer research right now, with Big Pharma and biotech also developing new treatments in this emerging class.  

“We are tremendously excited to join this collaboration, which will allow us to investigate promising new immunotherapy avenues for the treatment of cancer outside of our institutional silos in very unique ways,” said the Parker Institute’s Penn director, Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine.

“Working together will enable us to make quicker progress as we work to translate our laboratory findings into clinical trials.”

Parker, who is said to be worth around $2.5 billion, said the funding was also inspired by personal reasons, as his friend Laura Ziskin, a Hollywood producer, died of breast cancer in 2011.  

He joins a growing list of wealthy entrepreneurs hoping to boost oncology R&D. The estate of the billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig donated $540 million to six cancer centers in 2014 and Nike co-founder Phil Knight pledged $500 million to cancer researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in 2013.

-see Reuters take