Sean Parker, the billionaire philanthropist most known for co-founding Napster and Facebook, has put together “The Immunotherapy Dream Team” of scientists in the latest effort to fight cancer. Backed by Parker’s $250 million, this core team is delving into the use of immunotherapy to attack cancer, hopefully making it a chronic illness in the future.
The scientists working on this current project are of high caliber, experts in their own fields and personally recruited by Parker. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said to Wired magazine, “He went to some major football teams, took the best players off the team, and said ‘I’m going to give you money to do what you do best.’” The model that this team uses – as agreed upon by major institutions involved in battling cancer – will be followed by other researchers working on cancer immunology in the USA.
The six scientists now on this project include: Jedd Wolchok, medical oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and head researcher on valuable clinical trials, Crystal Mackall, pediatric oncologist and former head of immunology at the National Cancer Institute, Antoni Ribas, lead scientist on the drug study that helped improve ex-president Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer, Lewis Lanier, professor at the University of California in San Francisco whose efforts have been focused on “natural killer cells” of the immune system, Carl June who saved a 6-year-old in 2012 by using experimental immunotherapy to eliminate her leukemia, and James Allison, the scientist who “just might cure cancer,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
This large-scale study centers on immunotherapy, or the premise that the body’s immune system is capable of attacking cancer in the same way it can neutralize invaders like bacteria and viruses.
The primary challenge with this theory has always been that cancer has found ways to stop the immune system. The two most viable ways of addressing this have been to: one, “supercharge” the immune cells in order to make “armies” capable of attacking cancer and second, working with “immune checkpoint blockade inhibitors” or as Parker puts it, “retraining the troops” to take down cancer’s defense properties.
During a panel held last week, the team presented their latest findings, which were optimistic. Immunotherapy might soon become more accessible for Americans, especially with the foundation of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a contribution of $125 million to John Hopkins by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and charitable donors, and President Barack Obama’s “moonshots” efforts to push cancer research forward.
In addition, the use of immunotherapy can tentatively be used for more types of cancer, with strong findings from lung and brain cancers. However, certain barriers such as penetrating solid tumors have yet to be breached. The treatments have been found effective in some patients, especially for those with melanoma, but have had little to negative effects on other patients. Further investigations on genetics and biological makeup have been launched as a result.
Overall, scientists and medical experts alike agree that the discussion on cancer is changing for the better. With immunotherapy now an option, there is hope that more effective cancer treatments will soon replace radiation, chemotherapy and surgery and that just maybe, cancer will become a curable, controllable disease.