Sean Parker's pleasantly nondisruptive take on immuno-oncology

Sean Parker

Sean Parker is a very rich man. He has, according to Forbes, about $2.5 billion to his name, and he made most of it by investing in the likes of Napster, Facebook and Spotify, along the way deploying a great many Silicon Valley platitudes about "changing the world," "hacking" various things and, of course, "disrupting" most everything else.

So it was a bit jarring to see the 35-year-old seated next to a pair of renowned cancer experts and a writer who has won awards for her sober, cogent account of what it's like to be diagnosed with leukemia in your early 20s. The four gathered at Alexandria Real Estate's ($ARE) great big R&D megaplex in Manhattan to discuss "the new face of cancer," and despite the presence of two Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center luminaries and one of those patients biopharma companies name-check so often, the eyes of the room were disproportionately fixated on Parker. What had the tech billionaire man come to tell us about oncology? Were we in for a hack of truly nextified disruptive proportions?

But, to at least my surprise, Parker was light on his usual bluster and free of the bravado that has occasionally gotten him into trouble, instead demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the past 10 years of cancer research and, refreshingly, acknowledging the vast differences between the industry in which he made his fortune and the world of drug development.

Parker was in the room, presumably, because of his philanthropy. Over the summer, he put up $600 million to launch the Parker Foundation with a particular focus on life sciences. And while the foundation's unveiling was heavy on the day's de rigueur startup fetishization (hacks were made), Parker's in-person words displayed his seriousness about putting his money to good use in biomedical research and revealed him as someone who spends quite a bit of time reading peer-reviewed medical journals.

Parker's jump into immuno-oncology "was a pretty unexpected one and a strange one," he said, following hours trawling PubMed and, employing that old Silicon Valley autodidacticism, concluding "that the immune system in fact plays a pretty important role in regulating cancer."

Dipping his toe into the world of philanthropic gifts, however, Parker found that "the traditional model for scientific grant-making was so disease-specific and not technology- or platform-specific," he said. Enamored with the pan-cancer potential of CAR-T cells, checkpoint inhibitors and TCRs, Parker decided to double down on immuno-oncology, allured by the "amazingly sophisticated, powerful, computational machine" that is the T cell.

None of this is particularly revolutionary to anyone who has paid attention to the steady march of innovation in oncology over the past few years, of course. Rather, most notable about Parker's spiel were the many things he didn't say: that the Silicon Valley model is the path to biomedical absolution, that he had found the Uber of target selection, or that Big Pharma is just so many Hoolis ripe for disruption.

People from Parker's world sometimes elicit head-scratching and forehead-slapping in biotech circles, stepping into the field with superlative enthusiasm and no evidence of the hard-won humility present in drug development veterans who have seen so many once-promising projects implode. The fear is that once their pet biotechs come up short, as most invariably do, the billionaire dilettantes will abandon the sector and take a great many generalist investors with them, concerns made all the more real by Monday's big sell-off.

And so Parker's measured take on immuno-oncology--a nascent, evolving field that will require patient investment in basic research to bloom--was a welcome respite from the tech argot that overeager eye-rollers like me might have expected to hear. (He even maintained his composure when Sam Waksal, of Sam Waksal fame, took the mic under the auspices of asking a question but instead delivered a three-minute paean to, like, research, I guess?)

"My role is not to be a disrupter but to be a consistent, long-term funder," Parker said.

"It just feels like this field is very young, and what we've seen so far is essentially a proof of concept, or series of proofs of concept, that this can work," he added. "It can work in real people; it can be incredibly effective. And yet to the very valid point, this is not a tech company that gets founded on the basis of a handful of small ideas and then takes on the world, and 10 years later has sort of reached its final conclusion. This is a long process that I think has only recently begun."

And not one thing was disrupted that day.

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)