Sean Parker is best known as the founder of Napster and first president of Facebook. He's still active in the tech world. Like most of us, he has been touched by cancer. Unlike most of us, his response was to make a gift of $250 million to fund a new collaborative approach to cancer research.
"We have all had our 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 has had it. Half of all men and a third of all women will have cancer in their lifetime." Parker told Judy Woodruff in an interview on the PBS News Hour. "And what is especially frustrating is that despite of 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." Parker went on to say that as someone who has spent his life as an entrepreneur who tried to proceed rapid, disruptive changes, he was impatient, and it seems obvious that not only do we need new technology platforms, such as immunotherapy, but we also need to figure out how to collaborate and cooperate better.
Parker's grant zeros in on immunotherapy. At one time, he points out, cancer was thought to result from deficiencies in the immune system, and even in the twenty-first century that concept is still valid. The immune system more often than not stops cancer in its earliest stages, before it is ever detected, and even when cancer escapes early efforts of the immune system to contain it, immune cells have "incredible power" to detect and fight cancer even in its later stages.
The purpose of Parker's $250 million gift to cancer research is to eliminate some of the competition for research money. Currently, different research centers have overlapping research programs necessitated by competition for funding for their research. With adequate funding of research needs, Parker hopes, research institutions will be free to pursue cancer breakthroughs, not necessarily just what gets them their next grant. They will be able to share information because they will not regard other institutions as competitors.
Parker aims to create "a big sandbox where all the scientists can play together." Not everything is going to work out. Some projects will not result in cures, but the ability to assess why a treatment does not work will assist progress at large. Parker believe that President Obama's "cancer moonshot" initiative has come an incredibly opportune time, but the role of government will be as a catalyst, with private institutions doing the hard work of research.