"A Lot Has Happened in Three Years." What’s Going on with the Parker Institute?

CI Photos/shutterstock

CI Photos/shutterstock

In 2016, the tech billionaire Sean Parker launched the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy with a $250 million investment. Not content with simply funding researchers to work independently, the institute set out to foster path-breaking collaboration between scientists, clinicians and industry across the worlds of immunotherapy and cancer research. Its members include some of the nation’s top cancer research centers.

In addition to working with leading senior researchers, the institute is keen to train the “next generation of scientific leaders in cancer immunotherapy.” Most recently, it awarded seven early career researchers a collective $3.1 million in funding as part of the Parker Scholars, Parker Bridge Scholars and Parker Fellows programs. 

Investing in young scientists is a common strategy for philanthropist seeking to catalyze biomedical breakthroughs—especially when donors are playing the long game and want a strong pipeline of talent into the research areas they care about.

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 investigators who have recently completed their M.D. or Ph.D., and are ready to establish a laboratory or independent program in cancer immunotherapy.

These programs, while involving researchers at different stages of their careers, are similar in that they both foster a “collaborative network of leading researchers in immunotherapy, access to key resources that include cutting-edge tools and technologies, as well as early access to data from clinical trials and pre-published papers to guide their research.” These funded researchers will have an opportunity to train with top scientists in the field and benefit from an array of supports as they embark on their research.

If the past three years is any indicator, these seven scientists will find themselves extremely busy. Fred Ramsdell, chief science officer for the Parker Institute, tells Inside Philanthropy that a lot is going on at the institute, and much has happened since Sean Parker’s initial gift.

Perhaps the most important work so far, says Ramsdell, has been to support researchers at the member institutions that form the core of the institute. These include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The institute also provides programmatic support for top immunotherapy investigators at six leading institutions, and has other partnerships, as well.

Researchers in the institute’s formidable network have published dozens of articles in high-impact publications, and according to Ramsdell, are already making an impact in the fields of immunology and oncology. For example, the pancreatic cancer data gathered by the center is “impacting the way they we are designing programs.” Or, as Ramsdell says, “research always impacts what are the next steps.”

Second, some of these researchers, while still early in their careers, have been recruited to join the faculty at institutions like the University of California, San Francisco, and UC Berkeley. As Ramsdell notes, this exceptional career trajectory may not necessarily be “because of the funding, but as much by us picking the right people.”

Third, the successful collaborative vision of the institute is creating a powerful model, says Ramsdell. When the center was established, we observed that complex collaborations are famously hard to pull off. At that time, we wondered how a decentralized model, in which researchers remain in their home institutions, would fare over time. According to Ramsdell, this approach is working—most notably in creating a process to facilitate clinical trial enrollment. Clinical trials, the gold standard of research, are not easy to get off the ground, especially at multiple sites. There are institutional review boards and other levels of oversight that pose logistical and operational challenges. However, the center created an agreements alliance so that opening a trial at one site makes it easy to open clinical trials at another site.

The institute’s researchers currently have four open trials, but the size is relatively small, enrolling dozens to hundreds of patients. But they have brought multiple drug companies together to see if certain combinations of drugs are efficacious, including drugs for pancreatic cancer. However, this type of research takes time, and the institute, for all that it’s accomplished, is still only three years old. The field of cancer immunotherapy is pretty young, too.

It’s important to remember that less than 1 percent of cancer patients are now treated with immunotherapy. The Parker Institute aims to increase the scale of these efforts dramatically. As we previously reported, while $250 million is not much money compared to billions spent on cancer research annually, these resources are being targeted toward one area, financing a level of high-powered collaboration never seen before around cancer immunotherapy. As Ramsdell says, every penny of this money is providing “support for the best and brightest in a collaborative model.” He goes on to say that these young researchers, “don’t just get money to stay in their labs, but are encouraged to interact with the luminaries in their field. What these researchers have gotten done in three years is incredible.”

Far from being a remote funder, Sean Parker remains closely involved. This is no pet project. He attends the twice-yearly three-day retreats, which are full of scientific discussion and brainstorming. Both his money and keen engagement are a critical glue in a decentralized effort to push forward the boundaries of research. “Sean inspires trust and collaboration among the investigators,” says Ramsdell.

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