Soon after cancer immunotherapy pioneer Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize in medicine last October, his billionaire benefactor Sean Parker called with a cryptic message: Someone would need to be home on Friday afternoon. A delivery was coming.
Allison’s longtime collaborator and wife, Dr. Padmanee Sharma, initially demurred. The delivery could be left at the front door of their Houston home. She and Allison could pick it up later.
No, Parker said. You need to be there.
And so Sharma, who herself is a pathbreaking immunologist, made sure to be home that afternoon. Sure enough, two men showed up in a van they had driven from Austin, about three hours away. They unloaded some 20 blocks of ice, which had been wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, shrink-wrapped, and packed with dry ice.
In Allison and Sharma’s backyard, the men began assembling the ice blocks. Gradually, a sculpture took shape: It was a disk, some 8 feet tall and 1 foot thick, meant to resemble a giant Nobel Prize medallion. A black sand slurry frozen inside the sculpture created an unmistakable image of Allison’s face: his thin-rimmed glasses, his scruffy beard, and his unruly hair hanging down to his shoulders.
As the ice blocks turned into a work of art, Sharma snapped photos and sent them to Allison, who was at work at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Allison shared them with his lab members and clinical investigators, and invited everyone over for an impromptu party.
As if anticipating the festivities, Parker had also sent over half a dozen bottles of whiskey, perfect for the sculpture’s crowning touch: a built-in ice luge. At the top of the sculpture was a funnel, leading to a narrow channel snaking down through the disk, all designed to allow the booze to flow into a glass waiting at the bottom.
A small plaque at the foot of the sculpture spelled out what Parker had in mind: His gift was a “temporary Nobel Prize,” a placeholder until Allison could claim the real thing in Stockholm.
It was indeed temporary. “This being Texas, by the next day at noon there was nothing left but a couple handfuls of sand,” Allison told STAT.
The ephemeral sculpture cost around $10,000, and Parker said he split the bill for the gift with a few of Allison’s other friends in the scientific community. It had been designed, as a rush job, by Sean Leahy, one of the men who assembled it in the backyard that afternoon. Leahy has been an ice sculptor for 15 years, usually carving for events like weddings and corporate holiday parties. He’d never fulfilled a custom order for a Nobel Prize winner before. Not until a representative for Sean Parker called.
It’s been more than three years since the man who helped build Napster, Facebook, and the internet as we know it stormed into the world of science.
When Parker announced that he would spend $250 million of his fortune on efforts to harness the immune system to fight cancer, he seemed to be following a familiar playbook: Yet another billionaire was pouring money into yet another problem that had resisted previous attempts to tame it. Under the auspices of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, or PICI for short, he vowed to fund the research of leading scientists like Allison and Sharma — and encourage them to work together in new ways, always with an eye toward accelerating the development of new treatments.
Since then? The field has never seen anything like Parker, according to researchers and investors who’ve worked with him and independent ones who’ve watched him.
Parker has infused the field with money. His admirers — and it’s hard to find many people in immuno-oncology who aren’t fans — say he’s also catalyzed real scientific progress.
And with his taste for the good life and his famous friends in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, he’s brought a distinctive glamour to a field mostly unfamiliar with it — although Parker, for his part, disputes that characterization.
“I wouldn’t say it’s about making it glamorous,” Parker said, not entirely convincingly, in a recent interview with STAT in his Los Angeles home, a crown jewel of mid-century modern architecture just next door to the Playboy Mansion in the upscale Holmby Hills neighborhood.
Parker was sitting in a dining room overlooking the giant backyard where, in 2016, he had hosted hundreds of Hollywood and scientific A-listers for a black-tie launch party for PICI. John Legend performed that night, and so did the Red Hot Chili Peppers — all before Lady Gaga took the makeshift stage and belted out “La Vie En Rose” in a showstopper that inspired one rapt member of the crowd, Bradley Cooper, to cast her in the film “A Star Is Born.”
Parker doesn’t deny that he makes a point of trying to treat scientists well — whether it’s with the gifted ice sculpture, or the star-studded launch party, or the retreats he puts on for PICI-funded scientists twice each year in resort destinations.
But Parker said his intentions couldn’t be more serious. “It’s more about celebrating the people who are changing the world — and making sure that our values as a society reflect the work that is being done by the people who are truly innovating the future,” he said.
While it used to be that people became celebrities because they’d made a major contribution in a field like science or technology or sports, now “fame is a goal in and of itself, and fame has absolutely nothing to do with talent or achievement,” he complained.
Partially to blame for this, he said, is social media, which allows “people who aren’t really bringing anything productive to the world” to gain more followers and broker fame directly — “and that feels really dangerous, and it feels like a perversion of our basic American values or even just human values,” he said.
When asked whether he feels any sense of responsibility for all of that, as Facebook’s first president, he laughed, suggesting a STAT reporter is “supposed to be the only reporter that doesn’t ask questions about Facebook.”
In the aughts, Parker earned a reputation as a bit of a Silicon Valley bad boy: brilliant and generous, but also flaky, with a penchant for partying. In a retelling of Facebook’s founding story in the 2010 film “The Social Network,” Justin Timberlake portrayed Parker as swaggering and arrogant — and in one scene, uttered a line that became instantly iconic: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (Today, Forbes estimates Parker’s net worth at $2.7 billion, cool enough to make him the 877th wealthiest person in the world.)
Parker never said that line in real life, he insists, nor was he anything like the character Timberlake played, people who’ve known Parker for years say. But if there ever was a glimmer of resemblance in the caricature, it’s virtually imperceptible now.
At age 39, Parker doesn’t spend much time in Silicon Valley anymore. It’s an “echo chamber,” he said, where “success breeds a certain hubris about how tractable problems in biology actually are.”
He’s a father now, with a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. Like other internet pioneers, Parker and his wife, the artist known as Alexandra Lenas before their marriage, limit their kids’ screen time to only situations where they need to be entertained or pacified, like during a long car ride after a long flight.
And whereas he was once fixated on tech startups, Parker is now laser-focused on cancer immunotherapy.
In a nearly three-hour interview, Parker made clear that he’s fluent in the technical language of cancer biology, and he came off as eager to demonstrate it. He speaks in long, meandering paragraphs, pivoting questions about his own experiences to ruminate on subjects like the mutational burden of different types of cancer and the distinction between two different classes of one type of antigen.
“I hope it wasn’t too boring,” he said brightly at the end of the interview.
Asked how much of his time he spends on his work in cancer immunotherapy, Parker said: “It’s always more than 50% — and then sometimes it feels like it’s every waking moment.”
Life sciences investor D.A. Wallach has known Parker since around 2011, when they flew around the world together to help negotiate with record labels for access to their songs to grow the music-streaming company Spotify. Wallach’s assessment of his friend?
“He’s a renegade, and he’s brought that energy to this field,” Wallach said.
In a field where the progress has been uneven and the setbacks daunting, Parker’s institute is taking on some of the most vexing and technically difficult questions: Why do a small percentage of patients who get cancer immunotherapy drugs develop a disease akin to type 1 diabetes? (PICI is teaming up with two nonprofits to study the question.) Why do some cancers respond to the immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors better than others? (Sharma is running a trial to try to find predictive biomarkers.) And can the immune cells known as T cells be made to be more effective at fighting cancer? (The first patients were just dosed in a landmark trial funded in part by PICI that’s using the gene-editing technology CRISPR to modify patients’ T cells to try to do just that.)
PICI, pronounced “pie-see,” takes a jack-of-all-trades approach to its mission. It’s best known for doling out grants, but it also does much more — alternately acting like a drug developer, a convener, a startup incubator, a university technology transfer office, a control room for clinical trials, and a vehicle for Parker to invest (albeit not for personal profit) in biotech. More than anything else, it’s the combination of all those functions that sets PICI apart from other nonprofits in science and medicine, which tend to be more limited in their scope.
Of the $250 million Parker gave to the institute in 2016, most has been distributed, and all of it will be spent by five years in, around 2021, Parker said. On top of that, Parker has in the past few years put hundreds of millions of dollars more into PICI, he said. He couldn’t provide an exact figure, he said, because the investments take so many different forms.
PICI’s headquarters is in the Presidio, a lush San Francisco park populated by venture capital firms and the occasional mountain lion. Of the 67 people the institute employs, most of them work here, in a third-floor office looking out over groves of pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees. Whiteboards all over the walls give the place the feel of a well-funded Silicon Valley startup. In one corridor, a line from former President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address — “… with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer” — is scrawled in big red letters.
Staffers sit in clustered cubicles, divided into teams that aren’t found in most medical nonprofits. There’s a centralized informatics group of 13 people that mines data collected from across PICI’s network in search of insights to inform future research. A clinical development team helps PICI-funded scientists design, execute, and analyze human studies. And an intellectual property team helps them patent and license out their discoveries.
Parker rarely visits PICI’s Presidio office. He does his work, which he likened to that of an entrepreneur or a venture capital investor, from his Holmby Hills home or from the road. Most mornings, Parker said, he wakes up to a stream of emails and text messages about life sciences companies in PICI’s orbit. Some of them have partnered with PICI on clinical trials, others are being spun out to commercialize PICI-funded research in academic labs, and still others count PICI as an investor. PICI has invested in about half a dozen companies so far, with the idea that any future returns would be redistributed back into funding research.
When PICI first got off the ground, working with such companies took up less than 10% of the time Parker spent on the institute, Parker estimated. Now? It’s more than 80% of that time.
Last month, Parker flew to New York to hear presentations from PICI-backed researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — one of seven top academic medical institutions across the country where PICI funds a center. With more than 240 researchers and more than 40 companies and nonprofits in its network, PICI has brokered relationships with just about every big name in cancer immunotherapy research — with such ruthless efficiency that it’s not easy to find anyone well-known in the field who hasn’t worked with PICI in some form or another.
Parker may be funding the usual suspects, but he’s doing it with a twist. PICI puts a premium on supporting only the hardest, riskiest, highest-reward ideas unlikely to get funded elsewhere.
“Even the Jim Allisons of the world … have projects that they want to do that they don’t think would ever get funded by the NIH or get funded by anyone else — or if they were funded by industry would have so many strings attached as to make it really problematic,” said Jeffrey Bluestone, the pioneering immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who Parker picked to lead PICI as president and CEO.
PICI notched its biggest achievement to date this past March, when, at a big cancer meeting, researchers unveiled the first results from a clinical trial fully sponsored by PICI. That study, testing a combination of immunotherapies and chemotherapies, found that more than half of evaluable patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer saw their tumors partially shrink, with some responses lasting 10 months or more.
Parker had hoped for a first readout from PICI to have come sooner, he said. He acknowledged, too, that getting there may have been more expensive than he’d anticipated. Still, he’s made peace with the fact that brute force can’t speed up everything in drug development.
“Even though I would have liked to start moving things into clinic faster, I’m not sure how that actually would have been possible,” Parker said.
Just about everyone in Parker’s orbit seems to have a story about the way he talks about science.
Bluestone gets late-night phone calls from Parker, bursting with enthusiasm about a paper he read in the journal Cell or an exciting potential therapeutic target. Wallach points to a Sunday last month, when he and Parker spent the evening hanging out in Parker’s kitchen, in animated discussion over cell therapy manufacturing infrastructure and next-generation therapies that involve a type of immune cell known as a tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte.
“To the geeky science nerds, he’s one of us. He literally has become one of us,” said Dr. David Agus, an oncologist and trained immunologist who leads a University of Southern California cancer institute funded by another internet billionaire, Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
It’s all the more notable because Parker came to join the field relatively recently.
Parker had long been interested in the immune system — he has asthma and severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish – but it was the summer of 2009 when he made a trip to Italy that’s often cited as PICI’s origin story. Back then, the science that would win Allison his Nobel Prize was still two years away from resulting in an approved drug. Immuno-oncology might not have been a backwater anymore, but the current was still sluggish.
Parker had flown to Tuscany, to Sting’s villa, for what Parker describes a “summer camp for philanthropy activists.” It was there that he met Laura Ziskin, a Hollywood producer who had previously had breast cancer but at that point believed it to be in remission.
He became fast friends with Ziskin, who had founded the charity Stand Up to Cancer. And when her cancer came back, Parker got deeply involved in trying to help her access cutting-edge experimental treatments. The treatments did not work, and Ziskin died in 2011, at age 61.
Attempting to help Ziskin “was just this crash course in how the academic side worked, how the industry side worked … and getting a sense for all the things that seemed systematically broken,” Parker said.
Parker, who has no formal training in the life sciences, is an anomaly in a field where a seat at the table is often earned only after decades and multiple post-graduate degrees. Asked if he’d ever felt that his relative youth or educational background had ever made it difficult for him to get taken seriously by bigwigs in cancer research, Parker said that no one had ever disclosed such doubts to him.
“It probably wouldn’t have been in their best interest to let me know if that were the case,” he said. It was the only moment during the interview that he sounded a bit like Timberlake’s character.
Parker has a reputation for being concerned about his public image, and he’s clashed with journalists in the past. The boiling point was his 2013 wedding to Alexandra in the California redwoods, for which they brought in a fake ruined castle, a petting zoo of bunnies, and the costume designer who worked on the “Lord of the Rings” series to create outfits for each guest. When journalists gleefully mocked the affair and accused him of trampling the woods, Parker wrote a nearly 10,000-word screed in TechCrunch criticizing the media for mischaracterizing the situation in the service of a narrative that just wasn’t true.
Now that he’s making headlines for his work in cancer immunotherapy, Parker still sometimes feels that the journalists who cover him are missing the point.
A few reporters have asked him “weird questions” premised on “strange conspiratorial views about pharma companies holding back the keys to curing disease,” he said. (He wouldn’t name the publications in question.) “It usually boils down to something along the lines of: ‘Well, don’t you think [pharma companies] don’t really want to cure cancer?’” Parker said he always answers such questions the same way: “C’mon, give me a break.”
Parker also grew irritated with this reporter’s questions about how much he spent on the ice sculpture he ordered as a gift for Allison. “That’s a weird thing to want to include in the story. I’m sure we can come up with something more relevant,” he said.
Glamorous or not, the world of Sean Parker has at times resulted in a sense of culture shock for scientists more at home in a lab than on a red carpet.
Take Dr. Carl June, the CAR-T cancer therapy pioneer who runs the PICI-funded center at the University of Pennsylvania. While June is widely regarded as having a brilliant mind for cancer biology, he is less brilliant at recognizing faces.
At the big April 2016 party in Parker’s backyard, June and his wife, Lisa, were seated at one of the head tables. June, as he recalled it in an interview, started chatting with a man a few seats to his right. “Hi, I’m Carl,” he said. “I’m Tom,” the man replied.
The two talked for a little while, and June thought nothing of it, until something — he doesn’t recall what exactly, although he speculates that Lisa, a film buff, may have kicked him — sparked a realization: Tom was Tom Hanks. “I felt really embarrassed, to be honest,” June said. (Despite the hiccup, June hit it off with Hanks, and they talked all night.)
PICI-funded scientists rave about the retreats that Parker puts on for them twice a year, in resort destinations that have ranged from Hawaii to the Virginia countryside. The agendas for the several-day events are packed with structured discussions about the ideas and collaborations researchers want to pursue. But there’s downtime, too, during which the researchers have bonded over activities like skeet shooting, croquet, and spa outings.
For Parker, the retreats are a family affair. His father, a retired U.S. government oceanographer, has attended several times. Alexandra has attended all of them, except the most recent one, held at the luxury Meadowood resort in Napa Valley this past spring, because it coincided with her 30th birthday. Parker spent the day with the scientists at the retreat, but rushed back home to LA and made it back to celebrate with her before midnight.
Parker’s persona has also helped draw attention to cancer immunotherapy in unlikely places, including Vogue magazine. (His work with PICI — and his Dolce & Gabbana sweater — got the Vogue treatment in 2017.) “It’s elevated, I think, the star quality of science. And when you do that, people who might not have listened or been involved or interested now start listening,” Bluestone said.
Agus, the USC oncologist, knows this well. In May 2014, Agus — who has a few connections in Hollywood himself — received a text message from Ashton Kutcher, whom he counts as a friend, inquiring about a “really esoteric” advance in immunotherapy, as Agus recalls it.
Agus deduced that it could only mean one thing: Kutcher had talked to Parker at a recent party. When Agus talked to Kutcher, he confirmed that his hunch was right. (Parker said he had dinner with Kutcher this past Friday, and that neither of them recall having such a conversation at a party.)
It wasn’t the only time that’s happened. Every time Agus gets a small flood of questions about cancer immunotherapy from a certain crowd, he knows that Parker has been socializing. “There’s no way that four of these well-known people in LA are all of a sudden emailing me about progress and things that aren’t even out yet unless Sean was at that party,” Agus said. (Agus himself met Parker in January 2015, after the billionaire Salesforce founder Marc Benioff connected them.)
As for Parker, while he spends time in both the worlds of celebrity and science, Bluestone suspects that he’s more at home in the latter. “At the end of the day, he’d much rather have dinner with the center directors than with a bunch of Hollywood stars,” Bluestone said. That’s true, Parker said, when asked whose company he’d prefer.
The question is whether Parker’s deep interest — and his substantial financial investments — will translate into a real difference in scientific discovery and ultimately in patients’ lives. Those who know him are convinced he’s well on his way.
While “medicine in general can be so staid and cautious,” said his friend Wallach, “you’ve got in Sean a billionaire who doesn’t need to answer to anyone, who’s incredibly intellectually engaged with this science, and who has believed for a long time that he knows what the answer’s going to be.”