UCSF Immunologist to Head New Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy

By Pete Farley

Sean Parker, UCSF immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone and journalist Katie Couric stand in front of a sign annoucing the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy during an event in Los Angeles
From left, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker, UCSF immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, PhD, and journalist Katie Couric at the Los Angeles launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy on April 13. Bluestone has been named as president and CEO of the national initiative. Photo by Getty Images, for Parker Media

Renowned UC San Francisco immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, PhD, has been named president and CEO of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a national initiative launched with a $250 million grant from The Parker Foundation, a private philanthropic organization established by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker.

Bluestone, who was named this month to a Blue Ribbon Panel that will help to guide Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, remains A.W. and Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor at UCSF, and will continue to oversee an active research program at the University.

A panel discussion at the April 13 launch of The Parker Institute. From left to right: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center President and CEO Craig B. Thompson, UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, Parker Institute President and CEO Jeff Bluestone, journalist Katie Couric and philanthropist Sean Parker. Photo by Getty Images, for Parker Media

The Parker Institute includes six centers – UCSF, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The UCSF center will be directed by Lewis Lanier, PhD, the J. Michael Bishop, MD, Distinguished Professor and chair of UCSF’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, which is ranked #2 worldwide by US News & World Report.

The Parker Institute’s goal is to accelerate the development of breakthrough immune therapies capable of turning cancer into a curable disease by ensuring the coordination and collaboration of the field’s top researchers and quickly translating their findings into patient treatments.

The Parker Institute includes over 40 laboratories and more than 300 researchers from the country’s top cancer centers.

Each Parker Institute center has received initial funding of $10 million to $15 million, investments that will continue to grow on an annual basis through additional project grants, shared resources and central funding.

“We are at an inflection point in cancer research and now is the time to maximize immunotherapy’s unique potential to transform all cancers into manageable diseases, saving millions of lives,” said Parker, president of The Parker Foundation.

We are at an inflection point in cancer research and now is the time to maximize immunotherapy’s unique potential to transform all cancers into manageable diseases, saving millions of lives.

Sean Parker

President of The Parker Foundation

“We believe that the creation of a new funding and research model can overcome many of the obstacles that currently prevent research breakthroughs. Working closely with our scientists and more than 30 industry partners, the Parker Institute is positioned to broadly disseminate discoveries and, most importantly, more rapidly deliver treatments to patients.”

A Breakthrough Treatment Paradigm

While at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, Bluestone and colleagues discovered that a protein called CTLA-4 can act as a checkpoint, or “brake,” on the immune response. This work formed the basis for the development of checkpoint-blockade drugs, therapies that have been much in the news for achieving dramatic remissions of advanced cancers in some patients, particularly in cases of melanoma, lung cancer and kidney cancer. New checkpoint inhibitors are now in development for virtually all types of cancer.

“Immunotherapy represents a fundamentally new, breakthrough treatment paradigm in the fight against cancer – it harnesses the body’s own powerful immune system to mobilize its highly refined disease-fighting arsenal to engage and eliminate the cancer cells,” said Bluestone. A former executive vice chancellor and provost at UCSF, Bluestone was the founder and served for 10 years as director of the Immune Tolerance Network, the largest NIH-funded multicenter clinical immunology research program. “Parker Institute scientists at all six centers are leaders in the field and will now work together to make discoveries to treat and potentially cure cancer.”

Entrepreneurial Mindset for Immunotherapy Research

Parker Institute centers have access to dedicated research and clinical resources, as well as to key technologies needed to accelerate research discoveries in cancer immunotherapy. In a unique agreement among the centers, the administration of intellectual property will be shared, enabling all researchers to have immediate access to a broad swath of core discoveries.

Lewis Lanier sits in his lab
Lewis Lanier, PhD, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will direct the UCSF center of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Photo by Noah Berger 

“The Parker Institute is unique in that it makes it possible for scientists to mobilize resources quickly when they have an exciting new idea, and to begin experiments to test that idea as rapidly as possible,” said Lanier, who leads the Cancer, Immunity, and Microenvironment Program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.“This entrepreneurial mindset should considerably accelerate progress in immunotherapy, a field with immense promise for cancer patients.”

The Parker Institute’s emphasis on collaboration will also speed up research, Lanier said, citing the fact that only about 20 percent of patients with certain types of cancer respond to checkpoint-blockade drugs. “Though these drugs have led to dramatic cancer remissions in many patients, finding out how to increase the response rate is a major goal in the field. By amassing patient data from six centers, we can figure out that question six times as quickly.”

Applying Research to New Treatments

Complementing UCSF’s Parker Institute center is a new Cancer Immunotherapy Program (CIP), located at the UCSF Medical Center at Parnassus Heights. Lawrence Fong, MD, co-clinical director of UCSF’s Parker Institute center, will lead the CIP, offering state-of-the-art treatments and clinical trial opportunities for patients.

Robert Thistle is shown receiving an immunotherapy infusion from a clinician at UCSF.
UCSF patient Robert Thistle receives an immunotherapy infusion to treat metastatic kidney cancer. Photo by Barbara Ries

“Immunotherapies are changing the paradigm for how we treat patients with cancer,” said Fong, the Efim Guzik Distinguished Professor in Cancer Biology, and a cancer immunotherapy pioneer. “I believe they will prove valuable in treating many, if not most, types of cancer. In the context of clinical trials, we aim to provide access to novel immunotherapies that patients otherwise would not have access to.”

Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, president of the Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and E. Dixon Heise Distinguished Professor in Oncology, said that UCSF’s Parker Institute center will be a boon to researchers, physicians and patients alike.

“Cancer immunotherapy is a transformative approach to treating cancer, and we at UCSF are thrilled to be part of this unique nationwide alliance of top cancer centers,” Ashworth said. “By joining forces with other researchers, our scientists can make discoveries more rapidly, and our physicians can offer their patients access to the newest cancer immunotherapies and clinical trials.”

The Parker Institute center is the latest in a series of investments made by The Parker Foundation to advance research at UCSF. In July, 2015 the Foundation donated $4.5 million to UCSF’s Global Health Group to develop innovative and aggressive approaches to combat the mosquito species that transmits malaria. In November, 2015 a $10 million gift from the Foundation established the Sean N. Parker Autoimmune Research Laboratory, in which Bluestone leads research on diseases such at type 1 diabetes.

“With his generosity and creativity, Sean Parker has backed some of the most dynamic research programs at UCSF,” said Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, including its affiliated center on our campus, is Sean’s boldest initiative to date, and we are proud to play important roles in this nationwide effort that will profoundly transform the understanding and treatment of cancer.”

About UCSF

UC San Francisco is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. It also includes UCSF Health, which comprises two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, and other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.

About The Parker Foundation

The Parker Foundation is a private foundation established in 2015 through a $600 million gift by Sean Parker. Based in San Francisco, the foundation builds upon Sean Parker's philanthropic efforts over the last 10 years and capitalizes on his pioneering work in the fields of technology, media, company building, and public policy. The foundation aggressively pursues large-scale systemic change in three areas: Life Sciences, Global Public Health and Civic Engagement.

About the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

The HDFCCC combines basic science, clinical research, epidemiology/cancer control and patient care from throughout the UC San Francisco system. UCSF’s long tradition of excellence in cancer research includes the Nobel Prize-winning work of J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, who discovered cancer-causing oncogenes. Their work opened new doors for exploring genetic abnormalities that cause cancer, and formed the basis for some of the most important cancer research happening today.

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