Tech entrepreneur Sean Parker is just the latest big name to put up big money to fight cancer.
Parker, who helped found Facebook and Napster, plans to spend $250 million to build teams of researchers who aim to harness the immune system to attack cancer.
That’s on top of the $100 million for cancer immunotherapy research put up by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and clothing magnate Sidney Kimmel. Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has also assembled a coalition of rival drug companies to focus on immunotherapy. And the White House is proposing spending $755 million on a cancer “moonshot” led by Vice President Joe Biden.
So, will all that effort amount to anything? Here are five questions to keep in mind:
Will the money make much difference?
If money could cure cancer, we’d be home free.
Still, extra funding is always welcome. Even eminent cancer researchers spend large fractions of their time applying for grants: Dr. Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of six centers that will receive support from Parker, told Reuters it takes 30 percent of his time. If he could spend more hours thinking about curing cancer and less looking for money, presumably he’d make faster progress.
On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute will spend $5.2 billion on research this year, so even when you add all the private funding together, it still represents a bump of less than 10 percent. Each of the six research centers participating in the Parker initiative will get an initial infusion of $10 million to $15 million — not peanuts, but not necessarily a game changer, either.
But aren’t these new initiatives trying a new approach?
They say they’re supporting a new model of cancer research and they use a lot of MBA buzzwords to make that point: They talk about smashing silos, crunching data, and emphasizing translational research that moves discoveries from the lab bench to patients, not just curing a bunch of lab mice. Above all, they emphasize the power of collaboration.
At a launch event Wednesday in Los Angeles, Parker said the idea was to develop a “shared roadmap for the field” so that once the Parker Institute’s partners identify a research priority “we fund it and we go big.”
Some battle-scarred veterans of the country’s previous wars on cancer are holding their applause.
“It is hardly obvious that infusing money into these labs in order to speed up their level of interaction and collaboration will markedly accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and the development of new forms of cancer immunotherapy,” said cancer biologist Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been in the research trenches for 40 years.
Cancer biologists like those receiving funding from Parker’s foundation “already communicate and collaborate — and hardly need funds to incentivize research collaborations,” Weinberg said. “Self-respecting scientists [collaborate] all the time when collaborations offer actual synergies.”
Is too much money chasing too little talent — or too few ideas?
This has happened before, such as when the federal government decided to make a big push for solar energy.
Immunotherapy, cancer biology’s flavor of the month, is a legitimately promising approach, having spawned drugs that are already in use, as well as many medications and therapeutic vaccines moving through the R&D pipeline. And there are clear, specific questions to answer, such as why only a small fraction of cancer patients respond to existing immunotherapy drugs.
That will be one focus of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy: researchers will compare responders and nonresponders to see if they can improve the rates of lasting responses and extend the use of these immunotherapies to more types of cancer.
But there are legitimate questions about whether there’s too much focus on immunotherapy to the exclusion of other good ideas that might be bubbling up, and whether the same researchers keep getting funding at the expense of young innovators who might have entirely different ideas. After all, virtually every game-changing cancer therapy has come from an iconoclast.
Do we need new financial models for bringing drugs to market?
The Parker Foundation will handle patents, royalties, and licensing of discoveries that emerge from the research it funds. That’s billed as a way to speed promising compounds and vaccines into clinical trials and commercial development.
But university tech transfer offices already try to do just that.
STAT has not found any cancer biologists who think those intellectual property issues — rather than a fundamental paucity of meaningful discoveries — is the holdup in launching new therapies.
Can a billionaire with a vision jump-start research?
Much of the new funding from private sources springs from a concern that federal agencies fund mostly cautious, incremental research, producing cool findings about basic cancer biology but not many drugs that make a meaningful difference to patients.
Jeffrey Bluestone, CEO of the Parker Institute, told reporters at the launch event, “We’re not afraid to fail, because we’re not constrained” by the process of grant proposals or corporate funding. “We can be nimbler and move faster.”
We’ll see if a more top-down approach works better than encouraging bright young researchers to follow their scientific muse. But one concern is that if mostly big, established names get the billionaires’ money, younger scientists might get discouraged. Weinberg’s best graduate student, for instance, just told him she is going to go to law school rather than continue in science, dismayed in part by the constant dialing for dollars required to land research grants.
“The best and brightest are fleeing in droves,” Weinberg said. “People like Biden and Sean Parker should have stepped back and looked at long-term investments as well, specifically the type that will ensure that cancer research careers once again become attractive to students early in their careers.”
Sara Radcliffe, CEO of the California Life Sciences Association and an advisor to Parker’s effort, pushed back against that notion, saying it will likely provide funds to less-established researchers in small biotech companies. “It provides the infrastructure to consider novel ideas coming from the outside,” she said, “without the restrictions and the conservatism of government-funded science.”
Charles Piller contributed reporting.