— -- The battle to cure cancer just got a serious boost thanks to former Facebook President Sean Parker, who has pledged to donate $250 million to research a breakthrough area of cancer treatment called immunothearpy.
Immunotherapy treatments, which work by harnessing the body's immune system to battle cancer, have been considered in recent years to be a possible game-changer in the fight to stop cancer.
Parker, who also cofounded file-sharing computer service Napster, this week announced on his website the creation of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy that will link six major cancer centers: MD Anderson in Houston, Memorial-Sloan Kettering in New York, Stanford, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania and University of California-San Francisco. Parker, 36, has pledged a $250 million grant to the institute, according to the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy of San Francisco.
Medical researchers have for decades labored to find a way to have the immune system turn and fight against the tumors that have invaded the system the way they fight bacterial or viral infections. Scientist have discovered breakthrough ways in recent years to manipulate the immune system so that it attacks cancer cells.
While many immunotherapy treatments remain experimental, many studies have shown remarkable results.
UC-San Francisco immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, who discovered an early form of immunotherapy in the 1990s, will act as president and CEO of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Bluestone's discovery of a protein called CTLA-4 helped researchers discover a way to take the "brakes" off the immune system. Called "check point inhibitors," these drugs ramp up the immune system to fight cancer and a few have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fight various cancers.
“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,” Bluestone said in a statement Tuesday.
Most recently, former President Jimmy Carter, who had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, benefited from a check-point inhibitor called pembrolizumab. After months of treatment, Carter announced that doctors could no longer detect signs of cancer in his system.
Other immunotherapy treatments work by targeting the immune system and manipulating it so that it can find and attack cancer cells. A breakthrough cancer treatment last year helped save the life of a U.K. toddler who had leukemia. Doctors took donor T-cells and then used "genetic scissors" to modify them so they would be safe to put into the toddler.
They used the same tools to add synthetic genetic material that made the cells go after the cancer.
“The approach was looking incredibly successful in laboratory studies, and so when I heard there were no options left for treating this child’s disease, I thought, ‘Why don’t we use the new [modified T-cells]?” Dr. Waseem Qasim, professor of cell and gene therapy at University College of London’s Institute of Child Health, said last year.
While still experimental, similar treatments have been used to remove T-cells from sick patients, modify them to find and attack cancer and then injecting them back into the body. In many cases patients have side effects that are far less toxic than chemotherapy.
Patients will sometimes have immune responses such as fever or rash that indicate their immune system is battling the cancer. In some cases, patients with stage 4 disease have been found to have no sign of the disease after treatment, although it is unclear whether the cancer will return at a later date.
Dr. Andrew Sloan, director of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said scientists have only recently understood how "tumors recruit the immune system" and how that system can be alerted to fight the cancer.
“Tumors have figured out how to turn off the immune system,” Sloan said in an interview with ABC News when Carter first announced his diagnosis. “They recruit cells that surround them. ... These are not cells that kill the tumor. They protect cells from part of the immune system.”