Taking the Napster Approach to Fight Cancer

Cancer Cell

Sean Parker is bringing the same type of innovation that he used to launch Napster to immunotherapy cancer research. Its all about sharing.

Founded nine months ago, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy brings partners at six top academic cancer centers, dozens of drugmakers and other groups together to speed development of cancer-fighting drugs that harness the immune system has academic and drug industry researchers collaborating and sharing their findings like never before. It is being funded by a $250 million grant from Sean Parker, the co-founder of the file-sharing site Napster and Facebook’s first president.

For decades progress in research has been slowed by drugmakers protecting their money-making discoveries with patents and lawsuits. Academic researchers also guarded their work closely because their promotions, awards and sometimes revenue from licensing patents depended on individual achievement.

However, faced with the increasing cost and complexity of research, drugmakers have began licensing or buying patents and research programs from university researchers. Then big drugmakers began collaborating with each other and buying smaller companies, to share research costs, speed up the drug development process and get an edge on rivals. The Parker Institute pushes those trends to a new level, by creating a virtual “sandbox” in which scientists at different institutions can work collaboratively

Leading Cancer Institutes are Onboard

About 300 scientists at leading cancer institutions — Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Francisco; University of Pennsylvania; and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — will share their findings.

Participants will focus on early research. After initial patient testing, the institute’s technology-transfer committee will strike licensing deals with drugmakers best able to develop those drugs, providing funding for other early research. Those drugmakers, from industry giants Amgen Inc. and Pfizer Inc., to small drug and diagnostic test developers, will fund the much-larger tests needed for drug approval, which can include hundreds or thousands of patients and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Parker worked with hundreds of scientists to create a roadmap for the institute’s work on hopes to be able to make progress on three or four types of cancer in the next several years. It will quickly fund projects fitting its scientific targets and then rapidly enroll many of the 300,000 or more patients treated at the six centers each year in tests of resulting experimental drugs.

Focus on Immunotherapy as Initial Treatment

Parker believes that be make progress against cancer immunotherapy must become an initial treatment. Now it’s usually reserved until patients relapse after chemotherapy and other standard treatments that weaken the immune system.

Scientists have tried less-sophisticated strategies to use the immune system against cancer for about a century, with limited success, noted Dr. Eric Rubin, head of early stage cancer drug development at Merck & Co. It took recent advances in cell biology, genetics and related science to make progress. Now there are a handful of approved immunotherapy drugs that greatly extend lives of some patients with lung cancer and melanoma.

Those include Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Yervoy and Opdivo. They are so-called “checkpoint inhibitors,” which block molecules that slow down or turn off the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells.

Other immunotherapy approaches that will be part of the institute’s initial work include CAR-T therapy, in which a patient’s T-cells are removed from the blood, engineered to be “cancer assassins,” then injected into the patient, Parker said. Researchers also will develop therapeutic viruses and vaccines to drive the immune system to recognize and attack tumors.

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