In healthcare, you can't be a specialist in everything.
When Silicon Valley veteran and billionaire philanthropist Sean Parker learned this lesson, he homed in quickly on what we wanted to focus on at his $250 million immunotherapy institute: turning cells into “a clone army of cancer-killing assassins,” Parker said.
It's a focus that could once again put him squarely in the center of a sea change for business as usual, a place he's used to occupying.
“This is my personal kind of bias,” said Parker, who founded Napster and was part of the executive team that helped launch Facebook to stratospheric heights. “I’ve become kind of the cell therapy guru within our group, and I’m pretty much obsessed with T cell biology," he said while discussing his role in cancer research during a recent event on the disease held by The Washington Post.
Parker's organization, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, is a collaborative effort between researchers at some of the country’s biggest names in cancer care: MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford School of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California.
The institute is conducting research into other potential immune therapies to cure cancer, but Parker’s focus is turning cancer patients’ cells into tumor-fighting machines.
Parker likened cell therapy to nanotechnology, which was at one time all the rage in the tech space. Researchers believed tiny robots could be inside of the human body tackling various tasks, and by genetically modifying existing T cells, a type of white blood cell, Parker’s team can have these cells perform a similar function.
Researchers use a viral vector to modify the genes inside of a cell and then grow a colony of these modified cells to inject back into a patient. Once the treatments are fully developed, they can cure existing tumors and provide a line of defense for future reoccurrences, Parker said.
“They are these little nanobots we were talking about in the 90s, but it turns out that they’re made of your own cells,” he said. “They’re your own cells, reprogrammed.”
He's chasing what was estimated to be a $5.2 billion market in 2017, according to Grand View Research.
There are significant challenges, though, for cell therapy and other highly targeted cancer treatments in development, Parker said. For one, these therapies are very expensive and have many different groups involved that want a slice of the financial pie.
As these treatments proliferate, Parker expects the market to expand and competition to drive down costs. Also, as these are curative therapies, the long-term healthcare cost savings are worth factoring into the equation, he said.
Market forces should also incentivize researchers to find ways to make cell therapies and other immunotherapies easier to administer. A cell therapy treatment, at present, is complex and cannot be administered at the bedside, but it could reach a point where patients could be simply injected with the viral vector without the need to grow cells in a laboratory, Parker said.
“I’m much more optimistic today than I was five years ago,” he said. “You start to realize, 'Wait a second … the prices are coming down, competition is coming to the market, better therapies are coming.'”