Big Money, Fresh Approaches, Bold Methods

  • Medicine & Health
  • 2016

From his Facebook proceeds, Sean Parker donated $250 million in 2016 to found an unusual cancer institute. It will focus tightly on using the body’s own immune system to fight tumors. Until very recently, notes Parker, immunology was “the red-headed stepchild of the oncology world. There was a dedicated band of scientists who were convinced that the immune system played an important role in cancer, but they were essentially refugees from the cancer establishment.” Now they’ll have a chance to pursue their theories.

Even more than the huge pile of money Parker put up, or the bleeding-edge science he is supporting, it is likely to be the business-like philanthropic method he applied that separates his efforts from others. Parker insisted that all scientists receiving his money must coordinate their work in order to avoid duplication, and speed practical progress from research lab to treatment clinics. Neither bureaucracy nor prima donna personalities will be allowed to encumber transfer of information among the 40 labs in six institutions (ranging from UCLA to Penn to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center). The cooperative network Parker set up will propose research agendas, collect and share data on results, establish the necessary clinical trials, and handle all licensing of useful technologies and ideas so companies can bring them to market quickly. The network is also establishing direct partnerships with 30 private companies with valuable expertise, and with several patient-advocacy groups.

In explaining his effort to chop down intellectual barriers, Parker says that philanthropy is not “giving away money so much as trying to solve a set of not-easily-addressable problems.” He told the Financial Times that if you “form a scientific advisory board composed of the luminaries in the field—who are all at that point the establishment—and then you let those people determine how your resources are going to be allocated, you’re going to end up doing essentially more of the same thing that everyone else is doing.” Smart philanthropy often looks instead for roads not taken and new tacks by fresh thinkers. There are topics and approaches, summarizes Parker, that are “either too far ahead, or they’re unpopular for some reason, or the establishment isn’t yet interested, where private philanthropists can step in and have a huge impact.”

Parker says the slow “incrementalism” that has “taken hold of” academic science in many places is a symptom of the tendency of government agencies to fund only sure things. Most government research grants “aren’t really that interesting” because they are channeled to “the things that are already so obvious, experiments where the outcome is already so predictable.” The many top researchers who have decided to participate in Parker’s venture apparently agree. They say its flexible mechanisms and funding will allow them to pursue riskier, harder, longer-term, more radical ideas than government grants would allow.

The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy is but one of many recent mold-breaking creations by philanthropists frustrated with the conventional and risk-averse research that flows from much public funding. Paul Allen’s three innovative research institutes (see 2003 entry in this section, plus separate 2014 and 2016 entries), Bill Bowes’s special faculty funds (2016 item nearby), the genome center created by Russell Carson and James Simons (also nearby under 2016), Bill Gates’s innovative malaria vaccine consortium (2011 entry), Larry Ellison’s attempt to promote discipline-mixing in medicine (1997 entry), and the self-contained Janelia Farm campus set up by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (see 1953 Medical entry) are similar efforts to avoid stifling effects that are often connected to conventional government-funded medical research. Other donors like Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg (2016 entry on Prosperity list), and Sergey Brin are likewise promoting fresh ways of organizing research, and depending as much on their management insights as on their money to create medical-science breakthroughs.