What I Learned About Philanthropy and Cancer At Sean Parker’s Pad Last Night

The federal government will spend $5.2 billion this year on cancer research. Big Pharma will invest even more. By comparison, Sean Parker’s grant of $250 million to advance cancer immunotherapy, announced yesterday, is not a lot of money.

How much progress can a philanthropist wielding a slingshot hope to have against a disease that kills 8 million people a year worldwide?

That question was on my mind last night when I showed up at a phantasmagoric rollout event for Parker’s new anti-cancer effort at his estate in Los Angeles.

Picture this crazy mix of people: top cancer researchers and academics, Hollywood celebrities, the governor of California (and of Virginia), leading figures from Silicon Valley, and—later in the evening—Lady Gaga performing live before several hundred people in what Parker referred to as his “back yard.”

I didn’t even want to think about how many malaria nets one could buy for the cost of putting on this shindig, which featured Tom Hanks as MC and cameos by the likes of Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn. Oh, and Lady Gaga didn’t go on until after the Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Legend had finished performing.

Was I witnessing the new Big Philanthropy run amok? Could there really be concrete hope here amid such outsized hype?

Well, in the end, hope definitely carried the evening. The creation of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy is a prime example of the big resources that new philanthropists are bringing to bear on stubborn problems. And yes, while those resources are often small compared to what government or business mobilizes, this initiative is a case study of how philanthropy’s impact often derives less from raw financial muscle than the creativity of funders like Parker who set out to do things differently.

In Parker’s analysis, one shared by many, the long and well-financed push against cancer has yielded disappointing results for a combination of reasons. Government tends to be too risk-averse, with the National Cancer Institute gravitating toward sure-thing research delivering incremental gains, not breakthrough cures. “The agencies responsible for funding most scientific research don’t encourage scientists to pursue their boldest ideas,” Parker said earlier in the day, at a more buttoned-down announcement event for the institute.

Meanwhile, cancer researchers tend to be siloed, spread out across institutions that don’t talk to each other, guarding findings that ideally should be shared and built upon. These same researchers also spend too much time writing grants instead of running studies with the freedom to pivot easily as new information comes in. “These web-like layers of bureaucracy don’t just make it hard for scientists to do their best science, they make it hard for scientists to do science at all,” Parker said.  

Which is where the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy comes in.

In recent years, Parker—who co-founded Napster and became a billionaire from a stint as Facebook’s first president—envisioned a new effort that would knit together America’s most brilliant cancer researchers, free them from bureaucratic constraints, and foster the in-depth collaboration and free flow of information needed for breakthrough progress in conquering cancer. To advance this vision, Parker enlisted leaders from six of the nation’s top cancer research centers, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, Stanford Medicine, UCLA, and MD Anderson Center. He also recruited a renowned immunologist, Jeffrey Bluestone of UC San Francisco, to oversee the effort. In turn, prior to its launch, the Parker Institute formed partnerships with over two dozen other leading players in medical research.

Last and not least, Parker wrote the big check needed to finance this whole thing—committing about a tenth of his estimated net worth to the Parker Institute.

That initial investment is designed to create a research effort that becomes self-financing over time. The idea is that revenue from commercializing the new intellectual property created by the institute will be reinvested back into more research. “This is an evergreen model,” Parker said.

That all sounds very cool. But what about the actual focus here—cancer immunotherapy? Why is Parker betting so big on this approach to winning the war on cancer?

As we’ve previously reported, Parker developed an interest in immunotherapy long ago, due to his food allergies. And this has been the focus of his philanthropy for several years now. Immunotherapy is also the focus of researchers worldwide who are super-excited about an approach that may finally make major gains against cancer.

Parker describes immunotherapy as “dynamic, durable and universal.” Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapy “leverages your body’s own defenses to treat cancer. It’s capable of retraining the immune system to identify and kill cancer cells.”

Parker says that this is the difference between a static, unchanging attack on cancerand “a dynamic attack that can adapt alongside cancer.”

Yet even as immunotherapy has been recognized as a highly promising new approach to curing cancer, it’s still being used at relatively modest levels. Less than 1 percent of cancer patients are treated with immunotherapy. The Parker Institute aims to dramatically increase the scale of these efforts, and herein lies a key point about this big philanthropic bet: It’s highly focused. While it’s true that $250 million is not much money compared to billions spent on cancer research annually, all the new money is being targeted toward one area, financing a level of high-powered collaboration never seen before around cancer immunotherapy.

Of course, collaborations are famously hard to pull off. This is an ambitious project. The Parker Institute is asking a lot of its partners, in terms of sharing knowledge and re-committing new intellectual property to the common good. Unlike the Broad Institute, this is a decentralized effort, with researchers remaining in their home institutions—which will make it challenging to sustain the kind of buy-in and allegiance that the Parker Institute will need to succeed over time.

As usual, the devil will be in the details. Still, when Jeffrey Bluestone told the crowd last night that “together, we will outsmart cancer,” I was inclined to believe him. This really could be a game changer.

The after-party was still going full tilt, and Lady Gaga was still hanging out when I left Sean Parker’s pad at 1:30 a.m.