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Why tech titan Sean Parker is bankrolling collaborative cancer research

April 13, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Sean Parker made his fortune as the co-founder of Napster and first president of Facebook. Now, the tech entrepreneur and billionaire hopes to change medicine by creating a new kind of research network. Parker gave out a $250 million grant Wednesday to six of the nation’s leading medical schools and cancer centers to fund collaborative immunotherapy research. Parker joins Judy Woodruff for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: A young tech magnate places a big bet on a different approach to fighting cancer.

Sean Parker made a name for himself as the co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook. The billionaire is still actively involved in the start-up world, but he’s now dedicated a significant part of his fortune to medicine and fighting disease.

Today, he announced a major initiative, a $250 million grant to help fund research and collaboration in immunotherapy among six of the country’s leading medical schools and cancer centers. It’s the largest gift ever of its kind.

And he joins me now from Los Angeles.

Sean Parker, welcome.

So where does this passion, the drive to do something about cancer come from?

SEAN PARKER, Founder, Parker Inst. for Cancer Immunotherapy: Well, we have all had our own personal experience with cancer.

Virtually no one is untouched by cancer, whether they have had the disease themselves, one of their loved ones has had it, one of their friends. You know, half of all men and a third of all women will have cancer in their lifetime.

And what’s — what is especially frustrating is, despite all of these advances in genomics and understanding of the drivers behind cancer, progress over the last 20 years just hasn’t been fast enough. And, as somebody who has spent his life as an entrepreneur trying to pursue kind of rapid, disruptive changes, I’m impatient.

And I think — I think that patients and their families and doctors are impatient as well. And as I began to look at this problem more closely, it was clear that we needed both new technology platforms, like immunotherapy, but we also need to figure out how to collaborate and cooperate better within the world of academic science in order to really solve the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re zeroing this money in on immunotherapy. Why?

SEAN PARKER: So, immunotherapy is an incredibly promising technology.

It has a very long history going back 100 years. In fact, it was believed at one point that cancer was caused by an insufficiency of the immune system. It turned out that that wasn’t entirely false. Cancer is kept in check in the early stages by the immune system. The immune system is also an incredibly powerful weapon. It’s really good at recognizing cells that have mutations, our cells that are different, look different.

And so it makes perfect sense that we should be able to harness the power of the immune system, which works with your own body, in order to target cancer and destroy it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also in your presentation earlier today — I was watching — you focus on the inefficiency of the current system of cancer research, competing centers, overlapping laboratories, competition for money, an unwillingness to share information.

This is something you’re really baking in to giving this money, isn’t it?

SEAN PARKER: This is incredibly important to the Parker Institute, and I think to the next generation of research.

A field like immunotherapy is a great example. It’s incredibly interdisciplinary. And that interdisciplinary nature means that folks from genomics, informatics, immunology, and oncology all need to figure out how to work together and share data, and they also need to be able to share the breakthroughs that they make without being encumbered by bureaucracy or issues around intellectual property, because it’s going to be combinations of therapies coming together that are successful in treating the disease.

So, what we are able to do is create a sort of big sandbox that all these scientists can play in together. They have access to the best technology and they have access to all of each other’s breakthroughs, so that a breakthrough that gets made at one center is immediately usable by scientists in another center within the network.

And the hope is that this is not just a model for how we can research cancer immunology, but it’s also potentially a model for how we can do scientific research — scientific medical research in other fields.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are 36 years old. As we said, you’re part of this new generation of tech — people who have been very successful in the tech industry.

You have a much more hands-on approach to your philanthropy. How do you ward against being overconfident, of thinking that more is going to come out of this than actually will?

SEAN PARKER: I think, if anything, we have the opposite attitude. We accept that, in our philanthropic endeavors, we’re going to fail, and we’re going to have to be honest with ourselves that not everything is going to work.

That’s one of the problems of philanthropy in general. Large philanthropies and philanthropists, they don’t want to be told that the gifts that they’re making didn’t achieve the results in the world that they were looking for, whereas, in the business community, and in particular as an entrepreneur building start-ups, you have got to be willing to accept failure.

It’s a part of life. Not everything is going to succeed. And you have got to be honest with yourself about why something didn’t work. If you can’t diagnose the reason why something failed, you’re not going to be able to do a better job at it in the future. So, this is a general principle that we’re trying to apply, you know, from the world of start-ups in business to the world of giving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a timeline in your own mind, Sean Parker, in terms of when you expect to see results and, just quickly, the role of the federal government in all this?

SEAN PARKER: The federal government can be a catalyst.

I think Cancer Moonshot, the president and vice president’s Cancer Moonshot effort has come at an incredibly opportune time, at this point of convergence between the computer science world and the world of life sciences, and at an inflection point in the development of life sciences. So, that catalytic role, I think, is very helpful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sean Parker, announcing today the Parker Institute, we certainly do wish you well. Thank you.

SEAN PARKER: Thank you.

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