Cancer immunotherapy will get a hefty dose of its own moonshot Wednesday when a tech billionaire announces he’s giving $250 million to six cancer centers nationwide, including Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering and Stanford.
Sean Parker, founder of the music file-sharing service Napster and the founding president of Facebook, says he is putting his money behind cancer immune therapy because it is at a turning point and would benefit from research that is done without regard for the costs.
Immunotherapy, which enhances the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells, is best known these days because former president Jimmy Carter was on an immune-based drug treatment when he announced in December that there is no detectable cancer in his body.
Parker’s enormous cash infusion is the largest ever for cancer immunotherapy — and one of the largest ever for cancer research — and comes three months after President Obama called for a $1 billion federal cancer research program that he dubbed a “moonshot.” The estate of the billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig donated $540 million to six cancer centers in 2014 and Nike co-founder Phil Knight pledged $500 million to cancer researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in 2013.
Last month, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel and other philanthropists announced a $125 million donation for cancer immunotherapy research for the Johns Hopkins University medical school.
The new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco will fund “high risk best ideas that may not get funded by the government,” says Jeffrey Bluestone, a prominent immunologist and former University of California, San Francisco official who now heads the institute.
The institute hopes to improve upon what it calls slow progress in improving cancer survival rates. In the last 20 years, federal data show the the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is up from just over 13% to about 17%.
Currently, immune therapy is only approved “as a treatment of last resort,” Parker complains, which he says means it’s only used after patients’ immune systems are destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation
“I want to make it a front-line treatment,” Parker said in an interview here last month. “It would change the whole cost of care downstream.”
Just as the White House’s moonshot hopes to foster collaboration between typically competing hospitals, Parker’s new institute will coordinate research across the six academic cancer centers and other researchers who may be added after additional money is raised. Each of the cancer centers in the consortium agrees it will send top scientists to join the Parker Institute and relinquish considerable control over their research.
Thanks to the funding, Jedd Wolchok, a renowned cancer researcher and oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, estimates he and his staff spend about a third of their time working to get grant funding and, “now we can use our time to directly make progress.”
Some try to manage expectations when it comes to cancer immunotherapy, which led to many sensational reports of what some mistakenly described as Carter’s “cure.”
Cleveland oncologist Stan Gerson says immunotherapy can lead to “dramatic responses in lethal cancers,” but he notes that just 30%-40% of patients benefit, most relapse in one to three years, and little is known about how and why some patients respond and others don’t.
“Is it a replacement for everything else we’re doing?” Gerson says of immunotherapy. “Right now we can’t say so … but this is the time to make investments and pronouncements.”
Gerson, who is director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, estimates that another $10 billion would be needed to get the treatments approved and to patients.
Parker is contributing a quarter of the total moonshot Obama proposed for all cancer research and jump-starting the research in the most promising area right now.
“We want to be focused and we want to go fast.” says Parker. “Two words don’t come up often when talking about cancer research are ‘focus and fast.'”
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.