Can Silicon Valley cure cancer? Napster founder Sean Parker says yes

Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, at a January conference in Germany.

Story highlights

  • Sean Parker announces a $250 million effort toward eradicating cancer
  • Parker plans to bring together six of the country's leading cancer centers and have them share intellectual property

(CNN)Silicon Valley thrives on disrupting the traditional ways we do many things: education, consuming music and other media, communicate with others, even how we stay healthy. Bill Gates and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong know a few things about how to spend a lot of money to disrupt mainstream research while searching for cures in medicine.

Sean Parker hopes to join their ranks. In 1999, he co-founded the file-sharing service Napster, and in 2004, he became the first president of Facebook. Today, Parker announced his latest endeavor: a $250 million bet on eradicating cancer. Through the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, he says his plan is just a matter of time until it works.
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    What's unique about Parker's Institute is its structure and design.
    It brings together six of the country's leading cancer centers to have them share intellectual property, enabling more than 300 researchers at more than 40 labs across the country to have immediate access to each other's findings.
    The institute will license the research findings from each of the cancer centers in order to share.
    "That removes a lot of the bureaucratic barriers that would've prevented scientists from immediately sharing or capitalizing upon each others' discoveries," Parker said. "So a breakthrough made by one scientist at one center is immediately available to be used by any scientist within the network, and they improve upon it."
    The participating centers are Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
    "To do the research that really moves the field forward, you need a lot of collaboration, but you (also) need one big, open sandbox for everyone to play in, in order for that collaboration to take place," said Parker. "So a breakthrough made by one scientist at one center is immediately available to be used by any scientist within the network, and they improve upon it. They can move the ball down the field, so to speak, and as a result of that, things can happen much, much faster."
    "Sharing enormous amounts of data is not new in the scientific community" said Jean Claude Zenklusen, director of the Cancer Genome Atlas Project at the National Cancer Institute. He cites the Human Genome Project and the Cancer Genome Atlas as examples of successful projects where researchers have access to each others' results.
    During his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced the establishment of a new White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force to accelerate cancer research and that he wants a budget of $1 billion. But the problem with government-funded research, said Parker, is that potentially life-saving projects take too long to get funded.
    "In our case, it could be 48 hours before a trial is funded, and (just) several weeks before we have approval to conduct that trial in actual humans," said Parker.
    According to the FDA, when a sponsor submits a study as part of the initial application for a new drug, the agency has 30 days to review the application and place the study on "hold" if there are any obvious reasons why it should not be conducted. Barring a hold, the study may begin with Institutional Review Board approval.
    Parker wants the researchers to lead the charge, not institutions.
    "Our model is completely different from the model of a grant-making organization," said Parker. "We internally develop this road map, working with every single scientist. Everything is exhaustively debated. We tell them to throw out their mediocre ideas that maybe they were waiting to get funded or they were standing in line effectively trying to get funding for one of their ideas from the NCI. We say, 'Throw it all away. Tell us the most ambitious thing you want to work on. We want you working on that.' "

    Lessons from Silicon Valley

    "There's something very entrepreneurial about the (institute's) way of thinking, because entrepreneurs need to be very focused," said Parker. "Entrepreneurs don't have unlimited time. They don't have unlimited resources -- and if they're going to change the world, they need to place bets. I wouldn't call them gambles because you're placing a bet on something where you have every reason to believe that it works and you're choosing amongst all of the things that you could potentially be doing -- the highest value, the highest impact thing."
    Every year, 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer and 8.2 million people die of cancer-related causes. To Sean Parker and his team, those numbers are unacceptable.
    Parker points to the hundreds of billions of dollars invested to yield a very small increase in overall life expectancy.
    "Chemo, radiation, surgery and some targeted drugs are capable of treating about 50% of all cancers. The other 50% are a death sentence, and there hasn't been a significant paradigm shift in the way we treat cancer in quite a long time, said Parker. "There have been a lot of false starts and promises made about new treatment modalities that never materialized, or they resulted in this incremental three- to six-months average life extension, which is what qualifies as a new drug."
    "We're focused on immunotherapy for a reason ... because it's a treatment modality that has the potential to treat all cancers," said Parker, founder and chairman of the new foundation. Immunotherapy, back in the 1970s, was seen as a high-tech breakthrough therapy, using the body's immune system to fight cancer cells.
    "Cancer cells are very smart; said Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone, president and CEO of the Parker Institute. They mutate, change and learn how to escape the drugs we use to try to treat them. By training (the immune system) to see unique cancer markers ... when it sees it again, it can attack again."

    It's personal

    One of Parker's best friends, prominent Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin, founded Stand up to Cancer, and she was instrumental in shaping Parker's thinking about the disease. She died of complications from breast cancer in 2011.
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    "(Laura) was surrounded by all the best doctors in the world and had access to all the resources in the world, so if anybody should have lived, or anybody could have beaten cancer, it should have been Laura," said Parker.
    "Her death at age 61, galvanized me to do more, and now I look back on it with a certain degree of frustration and angst because if only I had done a little bit more a little bit faster, if only we had built this network sooner. The treatments that are coming out of even some of our trials now potentially could have cured her. It's a tough thing."
    "Twenty years from now, we should look back on cancer as something that our parents worried about -- and even though we'll probably never live in a world without cancer, the treatments should be relatively easy and extremely effective -- so it's not something we have to worry about," said Parker.