Tech giant Sean Parker launches Penn's cancer immunotherapy center

Billionaire tech guru Sean Parker (right) is interviewed by ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Richard Besser during a question-and-answer session Oct. 25, 2016, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Billionaire tech guru Sean Parker told an audience at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday that he wants to bring hacker culture to the field of immunotherapy.

But he wasn’t talking about computer geeks waging malicious cyberattacks.

“The term hacker has a different connotation for me,” said Parker, a self-described “hacker-philanthropist.”  “It has to do with finding creative, novel solutions to problems.”

Parker’s remarks were part of a panel presentation celebrating the official launch of Penn’s participation in the Sean Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

The panel, featuring top Penn scientists and leaders, was moderated by pediatrician Richard Besser, who  is ABC News’ chief medical editor (and a Penn Medical School graduate).

Parker’s new institute -- announced in April, along with $250 million in funding from his foundation --  aims to accelerate the development of revolutionary cancer therapies by uniting Penn with five other leading research centers: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, San Francisco; and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The institute links more than 300 researchers, all devoted to immunotherapy — harnessing the immune system to fight cancer.

Each of the centers has received an initial $10 million to $15 million grant to work collaboratively, sharing the kind of data and discoveries that are normally guarded as the bases for patents and profits.

Besser asked Parker why, of all the causes in the world, he decided to underwrite immunotherapy research.

Parker replied, as he has before, that his interest in immunology grew out of his own struggles with autoimmune problems – namely, severe allergies – as well as family members’ illnesses. But he said he was also attracted by the revolutionary science.

“There is something very hackerish about what Carl is doing,” Parker said, referring to Penn immunotherapy pioneer Carl June, who was on the panel.

June’s immune-boosting approach, which involves genetically engineering the patient’s own immune soldier T cells to recognize and attack cancer, “felt as close to a life sciences hack as there could be – in a good way,” Parker said.

At the ripe old age of 36, Parker is famous as the cofounder of Napster, the now-defunct internet music-sharing service that upended the recording industry, and as a former president of Facebook, among other things. Reportedly worth more than $2.4 billion, Parker has for years donated to medical research on his own and through his Parker Foundation.

 

The concept of attacking cancer by unleashing the immune system is old, but only in recent years have researchers made impressive progress.

So far, two therapeutic approaches have been shown to eradicate metastatic terminal cancer, a feat impossible with conventional surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

One approach, discovered by pioneers at MD Anderson, removes an immune system brake, or “checkpoint,” that cancer exploits to evade attack. Three checkpoint inhibitors have been approved since 2001 for metastatic melanoma, lung and kidney cancers — and the drugs are being studied to treat many other cancers.

The other approach, using engineered T cells, is still experimental and in clinical development. June and his team were the first to achieve lasting remissions with T cell therapy — but only in certain blood cancers. This approach has not been effective in solid tumor cancers.

Asked what he envisions for T cell therapy five years from now, June said the measures of success would be Food and Drug Administration approval, making the treatment widely available – and finding ways to make it work in solid tumors.