Billionaire tech guru Sean Parker on Wednesday announced a $250 million effort to accelerate development of revolutionary cancer technology by uniting the University of Pennsylvania and five other leading research centers.

Each of the centers has received an initial $10 million to $15 million grant to team with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Among its goals is sharing the kind of data and discoveries that normally are guarded closely as the bases for patents and profits.

"There's an agreement every institution has signed that includes terms of intellectual property management," said Penn oncologist Robert Vonderheide, who will codirect the university's part of the collaboration. "The Parker Institute will play a role in getting [discoveries] to the marketplace. I really think this will be a more efficient way" to turn findings into treatments.

Sean Parker echoed that in a news release, saying, "We believe that the creation of a new funding and research model can overcome many of the obstacles that currently prevent research breakthroughs."

Penn said it would use its direct funding to add researchers, do laboratory studies, and conduct immunotherapy clinical trials - 80 of which are underway.

Parker, 36, a cofounder of Napster and former president of Facebook, who is reportedly worth more than $2.4 billion, last year created a philanthropy, the Parker Foundation, aiming to spur innovations in medical science and global health. The foundation on Wednesday called its $250 million grant to launch the new institute "the largest single contribution ever made to the field of immunotherapy."

Immunotherapy harnesses the body's immune system to fight cancer. The concept has long been a Holy Grail of oncology, but scant progress was made until recent years.

The new institute unites trailblazing immunotherapy researchers at six institutions: Penn; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Stanford Medicine; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, San Francisco; and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

While immunotherapy is still in a fledgling stage, two therapeutic approaches have been shown to eradicate metastatic, terminal cancer in some patients, a feat impossible with conventional chemotherapy and radiation.

One approach, discovered by MD Anderson immunologist James Allison, removes an immune system brake, or "checkpoint," that cancer exploits to evade attack. Three "checkpoint inhibitors" have been approved since 2001 for metastatic melanoma, lung and kidney cancers - including the drug used to treat former President Jimmy Carter for melanoma that spread to his brain. More versions are in the pipeline.

The other approach, which is still experimental and in clinical development, involves genetically engineering each patient's immune soldier "T cells" to recognize and kill cancer cells. Penn researcher Carl June and his team were the first to achieve lasting remissions with T cell therapy - but only in certain blood cancers. The approach has yet to work in solid tumor cancers.

In the last several years, a long list of billionaire philanthropists and global pharmaceutical companies has rushed to invest heavily in immunotherapy. In addition, the entertainment industry's Stand Up to Cancer initiative has funded research "dream teams," aiming to do the same thing as Parker - expedite collaboration and innovation. (The journalist Katie Couric, a cofounder of Stand Up to Cancer, was to be part of the Parker Institute's launch event in Los Angeles on Wednesday.)

Still, big hopes can spark big fights. Novartis Pharmaceuticals - which struck a T cell therapy development deal with Penn in 2012 - later paid to settle a patent lawsuit involving the technology. Penn was accused of patent infringement by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Juno Therapeutics, an immunotherapy start-up firm with backers including Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Asked whether Novartis was consulted about the intellectual property-sharing aspect of the Parker Institute, Vonderheide said, "It's a completely separate institute."

"A certain amount of work is funded by Novartis, focused on [bioengineered] T cells," he said. "Many, many more things outside of that involve cancer immunotherapy."

mmccullough@phillynews.com

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