How close are we to finding a cure for cancer? Public interest has never been higher, and a growing number of foundations and top philanthropists are jumping into what's fast becoming a headlong race to eliminate one of America's top killers.
Among the big donors on the scene is the tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, who launched the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy last year with a $250 million initial commitment. Recently, the institute announced a round of funding for young cancer scholars pursuing innovative paths of research that large institutions or more established scholars often tend to ignore.
Support for younger scholars is probably the least-known aspect of the emerging Parker cancer research empire, which brings together some of the leading cancer research centers, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Parker’s goal is to create a synergistic collaboration in cancer research that can yield important new insights about the disease, and which can lead almost immediately to the development of new treatment therapies.
And remarkably, it’s already happening. Last June, the University of Pennsylvania secured approval from an NIH advisory committee to begin a clinical trial for a red-hot ‘gene-editing” technique (known as CRISPR) to engineer T-cells that can kill tumors. The Parker Institute is one of the funders of this study. Stanford Medicine and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (also part of the Parker consortium, along with the University of Pennsylvania), will also conduct research for the trial.
Dovetailing with this cutting-edge CRISPR clinical trial, the work done by the Parker scholars and fellows will focus on high-risk, high-reward projects. By focusing on young scholars, the Parker Institute is helping to build the cancer research cadre of the future.
This year’s $3.5 million award goes to six scholars, most of them already in the institute’s orbit through its affiliation with major cancer centers. Parker actually focuses on three groups of young scholars at distinct stages of their careers:
The Parker Scholars program supports graduate students and researchers entering their first postdoctoral appointment who are focused on “high-impact, high-risk” projects.
The Parker Bridge Scholars program supports senior postdoctoral investigators as they transition to faculty positions.
The Parker Fellows program supports senior-level researchers who have recently completed their M.D. or Ph.D. and are ready to establish a laboratory or independent program in cancer immunotherapy.
“Supporting and training the rising stars in cancer immunotherapy directly connects to our mission of developing breakthrough immune therapies to turn cancer into a curable disease,” Jeffrey Bluestone, Ph.D., CEO and president of the Parker Institute, said in a news release. “We launched the programs to give these young researchers the opportunity to train with the top scientists in the field, and we encourage them to think outside the box, take risks and push the boundaries of their research.”
We’ve reported on Parker before. The Napster and Plaxo co-founder, who became a billionaire after helping build Facebook, began supporting cancer research way back in 2005, and as we predicted, he has emerged as a leading philanthropist and funding catalyst in the field. In 2013, he was awarded the Oliver R. Grace Award for Distinguished Service in Advancing Cancer Research by the Cancer Research Institute.
In 2015, he created the Parker Foundation, which spawned the Parker Institute, and his efforts have mushroomed ever since.
Last December, for example, Parker announced a new partnership with the Cancer Research Institute to use predictive algorithms to uncover cancer “neoantigens” found coded in DNA. Neo-antigens are present on tumors and are specific to individuals, making them perfect targets for new immunotherapy treatments that might lead to the development of a cancer vaccine, experts believe. The partnership includes 30 public and private pharmaceutical, biotech, and cancer research nonprofits. Academic partners include the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Caltech, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Washington University School of Medicine.
And this month, Parker also announced a multi-year strategic alliance with Tessa Therapeutics to develop novel cellular therapy treatments. Tessa’s virus-specific technology holds the promise of becoming a treatment platform for a wide variety of cancer indications. Moreover, the company’s international production and logistics network enables the rapid roll-out of large-scale, multi-center cellular therapy trials
In the space of just 18 months, Parker’s deep pockets and collaborative grantmaking and business development model have accelerated the pace of cancer research and treatment adoption. In fact, Parker’s investments in allergy research and even type 1 diabetes appear to have moved to the back burner as cancer initiatives have rapidly expanded.