News Article | April 13, 2016
Sean Parker is donating $250 million to start the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, an effort that he said represented a new “blueprint for biomedical research funding.”
Cancer doctor Cassian Yee remembers how in 2010 he was called to Los Angeles to meet the Internet billionaire Sean Parker. Parker wanted Yee to help the Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin, then fighting breast cancer, with an immune-cell treatment never before used to treat that condition. “We’ll give you whatever you need—we’ll put you on an island to do it,” Parker told Yee. A few weeks later a very big check arrived by mail to buy some crucial equipment. Parker’s friend Ziskin didn’t live—the treatment she got was last-ditch—but today Parker is following through by giving out $250 million through a new institute he is creating to speed up the development and testing of immunotherapies, a hot area of cancer research. The donation, the largest of any yet made for immunotherapy, will fund six new “Parker Institutes” at the University of Pennsylvania, MD Anderson Cancer Center (where Yee now works), Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, and three other institutions. Parker’s charity, based in San Francisco, will have its own central staff of about 50 and will act a little like a biotechnology company by patenting inventions and trying to license them. Jeffrey Bluestone, the University of California, San Francisco, immunologist tapped to be the Parker Institute’s CEO, calls the new model “academic biopharma.” Parker, 36, rose to fame for cofounding the pirate music network Napster and later became Facebook’s first president, a role that netted him a fortune valued by Forbes at $2.4 billion. The entrepreneur, who created a charitable foundation to give $600 million of that money away, said last year he was looking for situations where “because of some novel insight, the problem is essentially hackable, there is a relatively short-term way of having a large impact.” Immune therapy appears to qualify. Over the last few years, scientists have demonstrated that unblocking or redirecting the body’s immune cells can set them on the attack and make some types of cancer evaporate. Now the question is how far, and how fast, the immune therapy idea can go. Parker’s money alone won’t defeat cancer. In fact, there’s no shortage of resources. The National Cancer Institute spends $5 billion a year, and drug companies spend even more. “It’s not a resource issue, it’s a resource allocation issue,” Parker told Bloomberg last summer. “We hack systems that can be hacked and ignore the rest.” Parker is expected to announce the new immunotherapy institute Wednesday in Los Angeles. About 30 cancer organizations and companies have signed on as potential partners, including Bristol-Myers, Pfizer, and Merck. The timing could be right for an infusion of social-network cash into cancer labs. Drugs that modulate the immune system, as well as genetically engineered immune cells, offer near miraculous rescues for some patients. The problem: the treatments so far only help a small fraction of patients, or those with very specific cancers. The question now is how to expand on immunotherapy’s initial success. That has scientists racing toward second-generation drugs, new antigen vaccines, and cells altered with more complex DNA programs. Parker’s initial funding of medical research began several years ago, in part motivated by his own experience suffering from asthma and allergies, which are also caused by the immune system. “He has the twinkle in his eye of a first-year grad student when I start to talk about immunotherapy,” says Lewis Lanier, the immunologist who is head of a new Parker Institute at UCSF, and who says he’s started spending the money on research using gene editing to alter immune cells, as well as finding new ways to treat brain cancer. Bluestone, who will split his time between UCSF and Parker’s offices in San Francisco’s Presidio neighborhood, says he will hire 50 to 60 people to do business development and computer programming there to support the six research centers, each of which will receive $10 to $15 million to begin with. One unusual feature of Parker’s operation is that it’s convinced the six huge cancer centers to allow it to pursue immune therapy patents on their behalf and also license them, or even spin out companies. It will also take a 10 to 15 percent cut of the revenue generated by those patents, which it will plow back into funding. Bluestone says researchers would also be required to share data and the latest clinical study results. “We’re not a biotech, but we hope to act a bit more like a company to drive those discoveries towards drug development,” says Bluestone. “We are allowing people to make big bets, take big risks, and do research that they don’t think would be funded otherwise. We’re looking for that Goldilocks sweet spot.”
News Article | April 13, 2016
A project 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. The newly created Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy 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. It brings together partners at six top academic cancer centers, dozens of drugmakers and other groups. "Everybody knows that we need to move forward and change the model" for cancer research, Jeffrey Bluestone, an immunology researcher and the institute's CEO, told The Associated Press Tuesday. "The goal here is to rapidly move our discoveries to patients." For decades, fiercely competitive and secretive drugmakers protected their money-making discoveries with patents and lawsuits. Academic researchers likewise often guarded their work closely until it was published because their promotions, awards and sometimes revenue from licensing patents depended on individual achievement. That often slowed progress. With the increasing cost and complexity of research, drugmakers 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, founded nine months ago, pushes those trends to a new level, by creating a virtual "sandbox" in which scientists at different institutions can work collaboratively, Bluestone said. 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. They'll 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. 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. "We'll make progress against three or four cancer types in the next several years," Parker predicts. He added that to be most effective, 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. "The Parker Institute does have the potential to accelerate development (of drugs) that will enable a greater number of cures," Rubin said. "We're very happy to be part of this."
Future health spend The provision of aid for global health has stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis, following years of increases during the early 2000s, and international health-spending inequalities will persist as a result, predicts a report (J. L. Dieleman et al. Lancet http://doi.org/bfdr; 2016). In a companion report, data extrapolated from health spending between 1995 and 2013 suggest that nearly half of low- and lower-middle-income countries are likely to miss an internationally agreed goal to spend at least US$86 per person on health by 2040 (J. L. Dieleman et al. Lancet http://doi.org/bfds; 2016). By that time, the wealthiest countries will spend an average of $9,019 per person on health, compared with $164 per person by the poorest countries. Earthquakes strike Ecuador and Japan A magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador’s coast on 16 April, collapsing buildings and killing hundreds of people. The death toll was 413 as Nature went to press. It was the country’s most powerful quake since 1979 and it devastated towns near the coast. Separately, a series of shallow earthquakes shook Japan’s Kyushu island last week, culminating in a magnitude-7 tremor on 16 April that killed at least 42 people. Buildings including a student residence, as well as turrets on a seventeenth-century castle, collapsed in Kumamoto prefecture. Zika link declared The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared that the mosquito-borne Zika virus causes microcephaly — babies born with abnormally small heads — and other fetal brain defects. The announcement, on 13 April, is based on a review of evidence by CDC researchers (see S. A. Rasmussen et al. http://doi.org/bfc2; 2016). The mosquito season in the southern US states is looming, and the agency says that strong causal messages will reinforce advice about precautions. Some scientists caution that the proof is not yet unequivocal, but that the CDC is justified in erring on the side of caution. Antarctic cruise Swiss coordinators of the planned international Antarctic Circumpolar Expedition announced on 18 April the 22 scientific projects selected to take place on the research cruise. On 20 December, a 55-strong research crew involving scientists from 30 countries will set out from Cape Town on a three-month voyage on board the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov. The scientists hope to extensively probe the Southern Ocean and map unexplored biota around Antarctica. The expedition is largely funded by the Swedish philanthropist Frederik Paulsen, founder of Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Vaccine switch Between 17 April and 1 May, 155 countries will introduce a new kind of polio vaccine as part of a global push to eradicate the disease. The switch will replace a ‘trivalent’ vaccine against the three serotypes of poliovirus with a more effective vaccine that targets the two types of virus that are still circulating. Just 10 cases of polio caused by a wild virus have been reported this year, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whales threat Marine-mammal experts have urged US President Barack Obama to halt permits for seismic oil and gas surveys along the mid- and southeastern US Atlantic coast. Fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis, pictured) remain in the wild, 27 right-whale experts from the United States, Canada and Britain said in a 14 April letter to Obama. Noise pollution from the airgun blasts used to return information about oil and gas deposits would affect the animals on important feeding and breeding grounds, the letter says. Glyphosate rule The European Parliament has called on the European Commission to restrict its marketing authority for the widely used herbicide glyphosate to seven years, amid controversy over whether the chemical may be harmful to health. The commission had instead proposed a 15-year renewal of the authority — which expires in June — to market glyphosate in European Union member states. Parliament’s resolution on 13 April also calls for a new independent safety review and a restriction of glyphosate use in public areas. The resolution has no legal authority, but might influence a May vote by member states on the proposal. CRISPR crops The US Department of Agriculture said on 13 April that it will not regulate a mushroom genetically modified with the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing tool. The mushroom can now be cultivated and sold without passing through the agency’s regulatory process; it is the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government (see page 293). And on 18 April, DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa, announced plans to commercialize high-starch varieties of maize (corn) that have been genetically modified with CRISPR to boost yields. The company aims to have the maize available within five years. Untested drug Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has signed a law allowing patients to access an untested, unapproved compound that some claim is a miracle cure for cancer. The law, which went into effect on 14 April, allows those with a certificate verifying that they have cancer to obtain the drug; no prescription is required. The news came just weeks after Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation released laboratory results showing that the compound does not kill cancer cells grown in culture. See go.nature.com/gwzswx for more. Warming review The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will review the possible effects on humans and ecosystems of a rise in global temperature of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. At a meeting on 11–13 April in Nairobi, the group agreed to produce three special reports: one looking at the impacts of 1.5 °C of warming, with the other two assessing the impacts of climate change on land use and terrestrial ecosystems, and on oceans, glaciers and polar ice sheets. See go.nature.com/aq3yhf for more. Green light The European Space Agency’s ambitious plans to build a space-based gravitational-wave detector are feasible and the mission could launch sooner than planned, an expert panel reported on 12 April (see Nature 531, 30; 2016). The chair of the Gravitational Observatory Advisory Team, University College Dublin physicist Michael Perryman, told the BBC that the group will suggest a launch in 2029, which would bring forward the proposed start date of the €1-billion (US$1.1‑billion) mission by 5 years. Exxon sponsorship The board of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has decided to continue to accept sponsorship money from the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, despite a February letter from more than 170 AGU members and others complaining about the company’s past role in spreading climate misinformation. “We concluded that it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently,” AGU president Margaret Leinen wrote in a blog post on 14 April describing the board’s vote. Last year, the AGU accepted US$35,000 in support from ExxonMobil. Cancer institute The Parker Foundation, a charity in San Francisco, California, has committed US$250 million to harnessing the immune system to fight cancer. The money will support more than 40 laboratories at 6 centres of medical research, which together will form the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the foundation announced on 12 April. The institute — to be led by immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone of the University of California, San Francisco — will manage any intellectual property that emerges from the collaboration. The area planted globally with genetically modified (GM) crops declined in 2015. The 1% decline — the first in the technology’s 20-year global commercial history — was primarily due to a decrease in both GM and non-GM crops caused by low prices, says the body that tracks such crops. But the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications also said in its 13 April report that major growers of GM crops, such as the United States, are approaching saturation. 21 April The United Nations hosts a high-level debate on implementing its sustainable development goals for 2030, in New York. go.nature.com/ku8o5l 22 April Sentinel-1B, a radar observation satellite developed by the European Space Agency, will launch from Sinnamary, French Guiana. go.nature.com/9pmfp7 The Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted in December, will be signed in New York. go.nature.com/7fpxfw
News Article | April 13, 2016
Sean Parker is deathly allergic to peanuts. If he accidentally eats a rogue nut and doesn't receive an epinephrine injection, he will stop breathing. Parker's struggle with life-threatening allergies hasn't stopped him from achieving fortune (as the first investor in Facebook), fame (Justin Timberlake played him as a charismatic hustler in the film The Social Network), and a track record for changing entire industries (remember Napster?). It did, however, inspire him to spend countless hours in an Internet rabbit hole researching the mysteries of the human immune response. "I'm totally fascinated by the immune system," he told me by phone this week, while trying to escape the New York rain. "Like my interest in other scientific fields, I took a deeper dive and got more and more invested." In December 2014, he got his feet wet by making a $24 million donation to the Stanford University School of Medicine, which is earmarked for allergy research. Today, he is announcing the $250 million-funded Parker Institute, a research effort to develop targeted therapies to treat cancer, which is noteworthy in its ability to evade the immune system. That's the single largest financial contribution to the field of immunotherapy ever. It's also Parker's most ambitious effort in biotech. To discover breakthrough therapies, Parker has personally helped recruit a brain trust of more than 40 laboratories and 300 researchers from the top cancer centers, including MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Penn Medicine, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Strategic advisers include Jeff Huber, a longtime Googler who is now working to develop a blood test for cancer detection, and executives from a variety of pharma companies including Amgen and Merck. Dr. Jeff Bluestone, a well-known researcher and a former provost at UCSF, is leading the initiative as its chief executive offer. "I've been following the explosion of cancer immunotherapies in the past five years," Bluestone says. "I met Sean a few times, and he asked if I'd join." Parker seems confident he can create momentum outside the ivory towers of medical research, even though $250 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of drug development, which is typically in the billions. The Parker Institute is hoping that its partners, the pharmaceutical companies, will fund the early clinical trials and shoulder the costs of bringing a new therapy to market. "From my perspective as an entrepreneur, I know we can see results faster," he says. He's identified two major flaws with research today: The lack of collaboration between researchers, and the frequent intellectual property disputes over new technologies. As a condition of partnering with the Parker Institute, researchers are expected to work with each other instead of pursuing personal glory. They must also agree to license any new technology they develop through the institute. After watching scientists behind one of most important biotech breakthroughs in recent history, a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, get embroiled in a messy legal battle over patents, Parker is desperate to avoid a scenario in which technologies sit on the shelf for decades while researchers duke it out in court. "I joke around that if you were to roll back the clock and design an industry or field that would produce a breakthrough technology for treating patients and curing disease, this is the last structure you would come up with," Parker adds. In 2011, Parker's good friend, the legendary film producer Laura Ziskin, passed away from breast cancer. The two had frequently discussed the potential of immunotherapy, which was also a subject close to Ziskin's heart. After she died, Parker set about quietly deploying capital into immunotherapy. "I set up a dream team in the scientific establishment, which hadn't embraced the idea yet," he says. But the field quickly entered into a kind of renaissance. Today, immunotherapy is central to the Obama Administration's "moonshot" to cure cancer. Vice President Joe Biden recently predicted that immunotherapy will progress cancer research more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 50. Broadly speaking, cancer immunotherapy researchers seek to understand the mechanisms by which cancer cells evade detection. They are bringing new therapies to market, notably immune checkpoint inhibitors, which help the immune system recognize and target cancer cells as foreign. These therapies are more specific than chemotherapy, which causes damage to many healthy cells. "The way I describe it to my patients is to think about the last time they had a bacterial infection and got really sick," says Dr. Dale Shepard, a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "That's an example of a robust immune response." By contrast, some of Shepard's patients have advanced cancers that present with few symptoms. "I see patients all the time that have five-inch tumors that are totally ignored by the immune system." Oncologists like Shepard are cautiously optimistic about the prospects of cancer immunotherapy, as they've seen it work firsthand. Some of the newest treatments, which have been most effective at treating kidney, colon, prostate, and lung cancers, have brought some of Shepard's patients with advanced tumors back from the brink of death. The therapies have even proved tolerable to nonagenarians, like former president Jimmy Carter. But for some patients, such as those with slower-growing cancers, the response has been minimal at best. That said, cancer immunotherapy is not quite a home run yet. The next step for researchers is to better understand why some patients aren't receptive to immunotherapies at all, while others show near-miraculous improvement. Oncologists are also hoping to see new therapies for hematologic cancers, like leukemias and lymphomas. Some 1,500 cancer immunotherapy drugs are currently in the research and development pipeline. Bluestone, who is heading up the Parker Initiative, has already scoped out some near-term research initiatives for the coming year, such as new ways to modify T-cells (the immune system's anti-cancer warriors) to better recognize and kill cancer cells. Additionally, the initiative will provide sophisticated technology to labs such as machines for DNA sequencing. And Bluestone is researching how to apply medical imaging technology, which can offer a three-dimensional picture of tissues and tumors to better understand how these cells communicate with each other. "We want to look deeper than ever before," he says. "We want to identify what cancers come back, and seek out subtle changes in the immune system that we can exploit." Dr. Prateek Mendiratta is a clinical associate of medicine at Duke Cancer Center. He treats patients with cancer every day, and is keeping a watchful eye on developments in the field of immunotherapy. I ask Mendiratta for his thoughts on Sean Parker making a big impact in the space. "Oh wow," he said, seemingly puzzled that a household-name tech billionaire would want to plant a flag in this particular area of research. But on further reflection, Mendiratta came around to the idea of Silicon Valley types investing their time and resources into the space. "We have to keep thinking outside the box," he says. "If more patients can see durable responses and remissions, I'm excited to see people outside of the industry step in." The oncologists I spoke to recognized that physicians desperately need a new set of tools to treat patients. And if an outsider from the tech industry can do it, all power to them. For his part, Parker asks every researcher who wants to get involved about the projects they wish they were doing (a very Silicon Valley question). He says he wants to fund the ideas that have been deemed "too complicated or too ambitious" for the status quo. Shepard is ready for this kind of thinking. "It's a daily frustration for me that traditional chemotherapies don't work as well as we'd like," he says. "I think enough people are willing now to stand up and do the right thing for patients, even if that means changing the way we do things."