Wednesday was a win for cancer patients and the field of cancer immunotherapy, with tech entrepreneur Sean Parker’s announcement of the launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI). The billionaire philanthropist has committed $250 million of seed funding to the new institute.
A cornerstone of PICI’s strategy is collaboration with leading academic, biotech, and nonprofit organizations. PICI has partnered with the Cancer Research Institute to embark on a strategic research initiative that will focus primarily on developing reliable tools to predict an individual patient’s tumor mutations. Such insights could enable CRI scientists to create and test personalized therapeutic and even preventive treatments.
Parker kicked off his new initiative with a star-studded launch event hosted by Katie Couric in Los Angeles. Adam Kolom, director of CRI’s Clinical Accelerator and vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at PICI, spoke at the event about the power of partnerships to advance research and save more lives. “When we bring together technologies from multiple partners, significant synergies become possible,” Kolom said.
At CRI’s 2013 awards dinner, during which CRI presented Parker with The Oliver R. Grace Award for Distinguished Service in Advancing Cancer Research, Parker underscored his belief that cancer immunotherapy will one day eradicate cancer, and affirmed his commitment to furthering “the field that CRI pioneered.”
Under scientific leadership that includes several members of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, PICI utilizes a collaborative research model similar in approach to CRI’s Clinical Accelerator, a program that speeds discovery among industry, academic, and nonprofit partners and serves as an incubator for next-generation cancer immunotherapies.
According to PICI, the new institute’s research strategy will be carried out by three teams, each with distinct purposes.
One team will work to develop and refine cell-based treatments, such as the CAR T cell therapy, a treatment strategy that has already led to amazing results in patients, including 9 year-old Emily Whitehead, whose leukemia will have been in remission for 4 years next month.
Another team will further examine checkpoint inhibitors, which activate within patients a stronger immune response that can be directed against cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors—such as the anti-PD-1 antibodies pembrolizumab and nivolumab and the anti-CTLA-4 drug ipilimumab—have already led to long lasting remissions in patients with several types of advanced cancers. Unfortunately, not all patients respond to checkpoint inhibitors, and understanding why will be the first step to improving that.
The third team will focus on the longer-term goal of creating anti-cancer vaccines. They will investigate the nature of tumor mutations, and develop methods to accurately predict and target these abnormal signatures. If doctors can reliably determine how pre-cancerous cells mutate, then it might be possible to develop preventive vaccines so that our immune system can quell cancerous uprisings before they ever pose a threat. The plan will then be to validate this hypothesis by employing the vaccine approach in clinical trials financed by both CRI and PICI.
Immunotherapy—by virtue of the versatility and specificity of our immune systems—offers us a winning chance at finally conquering cancer. We’re only at the beginning of this cancer treatment revolution, and there’s more work to be done. Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, CRI’s CEO and director of scientific affairs and an inaugural member of the PICI Strategic Advisory Group, speaks for all of us at CRI and in the cancer immunology field regarding the financial and organizational support from PICI when she said we’re “very excited to see [immunotherapy] catching on and getting the resources needed to help more and more patients.”