Billionaire Sean Parker, famous for his founding roles at Napster and Facebook, is backing an unconventional $250 million effort to attack cancer that involves persuading hundreds of the country's top scientists — who often are in competition with each other — to join forces and unify their research targets.
The consortium, which was formally announced Wednesday, focuses on immunotherapy, a relatively new area of research that seeks to mobilize the body's own defense systems to fight mutant cancer cells. Many believe it represents the future of cancer therapy.
More than 300 scientists working at 40 labs in six institutions — Stanford, the University of California, San Francisco, and University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — have already signed on.
"Cancer immunotherapy is such an incredibly complex field, and for every answer it seems to pose 10 more questions. I'm an entrepreneur so I wish some of these questions had been answered yesterday," Parker said.
He describes the effort as a way to remove obstacles related to bureaucracy and personality that will allow scientists to borrow from each other's labs unencumbered. The researchers will continue to be based at their home institutions but will receive additional funding and access to other resources, including specialized data scientists and genetic engineering equipment set to become part of the nonprofit Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco.
A centralized scientific steering committee comprised of one member from each participating university will set the group's research agenda and coordinate data collection and clinical trials across the many sites.
In designing this new model, the 36-year-old Parker has taken a page from his experience as an entrepreneur by thinking beyond early research to actual therapies that he believes could eventually benefit millions of people in the United States and abroad.
One of his central innovations — and the one that initially made some university partners uncomfortable — is that the institute will take the lead in licensing and negotiating with industry to bring any therapies to market. The researchers and academic centers will still continue to own the intellectual property.
"This allows us to run a much more competitive negotiation with industry. We would become a kind of one-stop shop for the technology," he said.
The new institute will be led by Jeff Bluestone, the respected former University of California, San Francisco, provost and immunologist who is one of 28 members of a blue-ribbon experts panel recently named by Vice President Biden to advise the government's $1 billion "moonshot" initiative to cure cancer.
Bluestone thinks collaboration changes the ambitions of everyone in the field. "Having lived in a world of individualized, solo research, I can see that the thinking is different," he said. "It's about how we can all do something bigger and better together."