Sean Parker’s $250 Million Donation to Immunotherapy Research

Big Money for Promising Cancer Therapy

Sean Parker
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For a couple years, the doors to the record store were propped wide open, and the register was left unattended with no shopkeeper in sight. I’m figuratively referring to the heyday of online music piracy that occurred around the turn of the millennium. This explosion in piracy is largely attributable to Napster, a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing service that allowed countless millions to share MP3s (digital music files) for free.

The creation and widespread dissemination of Napster was a disruptive event for the recording industry. Sean Parker and the other founders of the file-sharing service soon incurred the ire of the recording industry because, as we all can appreciate now, sharing copyrighted music, or piracy, is stealing. Within two years, Napster had shuttered its free music-sharing platform.

Although piracy is still a big problem — BitTorrent is another way to freely share data like songs and movies with others — Napster was distinct in its ease of use. Napster also changed the way that we looked at how we could acquire music, and many people who now use the iTunes store were first introduced the idea of downloading music by means of Napster.

Napster may be gone but Sean Parker, one of its creators, is alive and well. In April 2016, Parker made headlines for earmarking a whopping $250 million for immunotherapy research to be shared by six cancer centers, including Stanford and Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Sean Parker: Tech Wunderkind and Top Philanthropist

Napster was no failure; in fact, it was a huge success, and many contend that it was the fasted growing business ever. However, people were using Napster for illicit means, which is why it needed to be shut down.

After the demise of Napster as we knew it — the brand went through several iterations before eventually being culled in 2011 — Parker took a big interest in social media. He founded the social media site Plaxo, an endeavor from which he was soon ousted. Then in 2004, at age 24, Parker made a move that netted him billions and also changed the world: He became the president of Facebook.

As president of Facebook, Parker took the small start-up and introduced it to the world. He brought in investors and helped design the site. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg may have come up with Facebook, but Facebook is what it is today because of Parker.

Parker has always been a hard core reveler and big spender. In 2013, he spent $10 million dollars on a wedding on private property located in Big Sur. He then had to pay the state of California $2.5 million for building a cottage, fake ruins, waterfalls and a giant dance floor near a sensitive refuge for wildlife.

In 2005 while president of Facebook, Parker was busted for cocaine possession and subsequently let go from the company. Thanks to his year-plus involvement with Facebook, Parker is valued at $3.5 billion.

In the years after leaving Facebook, Parker turned lots of his attention to philanthropy. In June 2015, Parker donated $600 million to the Parker Foundation.

According to the Parker Foundation website:

"The foundation builds upon Sean’s historical philanthropic support and capitalizes on his pioneering work in the fields of technology, media, company building, and public policy. Based in San Francisco, the foundation intends to aggressively pursue large-scale systemic change in three focus areas: Life Sciences, Global Public Health, and Civic Engagement."

In April 2016, the Parker Foundation donated $250 million to set up the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. (Apparently, Parker likes to name his charitable endeavors after himself.)

What Is Immunotherapy?

Growth in our body occurs as a result of complex signaling pathways which transmit natural signals produced by natural agents. By co-opting the actions of these natural agents, researchers have been able to fight cancer.

Natural agents, like interleukins, interferons and a variety of other cytokines, can be formed in the lab. Furthermore, synthetic agents, which mimic the production of natural signals, can also be produced in the lab. Such natural and synthetic agents can be administered to either mess with the growth of cancer cells or enable healthy cells to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. The use of agents that stimulate immune response is called immunotherapy.

Brief History of Immunotherapy

The fundamental concept underlying immunotherapy — using the immune system to eradicate cancer — is nothing new. People proposed this concept way back in the 19th century. Furthermore between 1890 and 1960, various researchers tried to infect cancer patients using bacteria to treat the cancer; results from these experiments were mixed.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that we started to learn more about the immune system. Specifically in the 1980s, researchers discovered two natural agents that advanced our understanding of the immune system: the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) and T-cell receptor (TCR). These discoveries inspired a slew of clinical trials early on. However, real significant breakthroughs in the efficacy of immunotherapy didn’t occur until we better understood T-cell function as well as costimulatory and coinhibitor molecules. Please keep in mind that the immune system is ineffably complicated and to leverage its power to fight disease, we needed to better understand its actions.

The 3 Principles That Steer Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy

There are three basic principles that direct the field of cancer immunology and guide potential immunotherapies.

Principle #1: immune surveillance. Immune surveillance refers to the process by which the immune system scans and eliminates nascent cells which have been transformed and are no longer normal (think cancer cells).

Principle #2: immune editing. Immune editing refers to the process wherein the immune system acts to suppress cancerous cells. This suppression results in an equilibrium, in which tumor cells live but are checked. Some tumor cells, however, are able to escape the effects of the immune system due either to reduced immunogenicity or an ability to overcome immune response. These escaped cells become clinically evident cancers.

Principle #3: immune tolerance. With immune tolerance, cancer cells that have escaped the effects of the immune system use the body’s immune system to evade destruction and to continue to grow and divide.   

Parker states that he’s decided to invest so much money in immunotherapy research because immunotherapy is the only treatment that has been shown to be able to induce long-lasting remission. Nevertheless, immunotherapy research is drastically underfunded — receiving only 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s nearly $5 billion annual budget. Furthermore, Parker points out that R&D at pharmaceutical companies are more interested in funding research that explores chemotherapy or targeted agents thus further compounding the need for donations to immunotherapy research.

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