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Napster's Sean Parker Invests $250 Million In Immunotherapy Research


We're going to turn now to some big news in the world of health care research. This comes from one of Silicon Valley's best-known native sons. Billionaire Sean Parker is known for his role in changing the way music is distributed through the now-defunct Napster and helping to shape Facebook into the force it is today along with founder Mark Zuckerberg. But now he's turned his attention to health research. He is donating $250 million to a field of cancer treatment research called immunotherapy. More than 300 scientists at 40 labs and six institutions have signed on to work in this area of immunotherapy. Here to tell us more is the head of the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Jeff Bluestone. He's in charge of putting Parker's vision into action. And he joined us from the University of California, San Francisco, where he as a professor and an expert in immune system research. And I asked him within the scope of cancer funding how significant is a $250 million gift.

JEFF BLUESTONE: At some level, it's actually a small amount compared to the billions that are being spent in this field, especially more recently as some of the exciting new clinical and research data has come forward. But it's not necessarily how much money. It's how we're going to spend it. And I think that we're going to be very careful and focused on making sure that we make big and bold and fast bets on some clear areas of research so that hopefully even this amount of money can have a real impact.

MARTIN: How is it going to be spent?

BLUESTONE: Yeah, so we started by giving each of our founding centers a bolus of money up front, between 10 and $15 million, to make sure that they can engage in a very real way into our efforts by building infrastructure where needed, recruiting some faculty if necessary. But most importantly, building a platform projects.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the science, and why is it that there's so much excitement over this particular area?

BLUESTONE: We've spent much of the last hundred years trying to develop cancer therapies that have been focused on how do we kill or destroy the cancer directly, whether it's removing it by surgery or radiation or treating with therapeutic drugs, unfortunately that's had mixed success. And in many cases, the tumors mutate, they grow back. The immune system is very different. The immune system is an organ, a sense in the body which goes out and finds foreign things, attacks them and is both rather specific and has memories. So when you get the flu virus, you respond to it. You're sick for a week but then you're protected from that flu virus again in the future. So that's a fundamental change - instead of engaging the cancer directly, engaging the immune system so it seeks out and destroys the cancer.

MARTIN: I was noticing The New York Times wrote about this. And Sean Parker, the benefactor here, has a quote from his interview with the Times, where he says how do we get more therapies to market faster and more cheaply? I mean, clearly people believe in - you know, profit is important because profit is how these things get paid for, right? But can you assure the public that the discoveries here will actually serve the public interest as opposed to the interests of a small group of shareholders, for example, or a small group of individuals?

BLUESTONE: Oh, I think it's a great concern as a citizen myself. Of course, the Parker Institute is not in a position to determine drug pricing or to directly impact on how much is charged for a drug. These are often expensive drugs, and we know that. I think what the Parker Institute can do, however, is by speeding things along, right, by reducing the failure rate by helping to discover drugs that we think will make it through the long, arduous and extremely expensive process of developing a drug, the faster things can move forward. With a higher degree of success, the cheaper the cost of the drug could be.

MARTIN: I understand that the Institute will also have an arrangement that is a little different in that the Institute will hold the patents and the royalties and the licensing. Is that accurate?

BLUESTONE: Not quite. There are challenges that exist in the bureaucracy of how do you actually deal with the intellectual property when you get it? How do you license it out? How do you work with different institutions who may have different pieces? And so what our model does is to try to change that - not by owning the patents. The institutions and scientists who invent it still own their patents. But we manage the intellectual property portfolio with our institutions. So we can, for instance, bring together discoveries by a Sloan Kettering or an MD Anderson or a UCSF together in such a way that makes them more attractive. We can invest in those discoveries early to move them forward more rapidly in the patent process or in the licensing process.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I understand that you, you know, are research scientists and you're dedicated to, you know, the world of facts and, you know, finding - following the information where it leads and so forth. But do you mind if I ask are you excited?

BLUESTONE: Yeah, it's the most - I've had a number of different positions. I do research in my lab, which is spectacular. I love the research that I do and the scientists that I work with. We're not just going to do great science - that's first and foremost - but also building a - kind of a sandbox of collaboration, unprecedented collaboration where these different centers with their great scientists are going to work together.

MARTIN: That's professor Jeff Bluestone. He's a professor and immune expert at the University of California, San Francisco. He is now the president and CEO of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. We reached him in San Francisco. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BLUESTONE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.