Eighteen months after social media mogul Sean Parker anted up $250 million to launch a new cancer institute devoted to groundbreaking research work, the group is still absorbing labs and top investigators into its swelling network. This week, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy welcomed a string of labs at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute led by some of the best-known scientists in oncology.
These scientists include Stephen Hodi, who led the first human study of Yervoy (ipilimumab), a pioneering CTLA-4 checkpoint drug that has been playing a primary role in immuno-oncology combo studies. Hodi has been focusing on breaking down resistance to the new checkpoints sweeping the field. The list also involves Catherine Wu, an antigen expert whose been working on identifying new targets that can whip up a more effective immune response to cancer. Philip Kranzusch — studying the cGAS-STING pathway to control immune signaling and antitumor immunity — and Nick Haining, concentrating on T cells, are also signing up.
PICI CEO (and UC San Francisco professor) Jeff Bluestone tells me that they have more than 60 labs in the network now, including more than 300 scientists in the front ranks of a global army of investigators who are pushing oncology R&D on to the next level.
“It’s more than just a numbers game,” he says. These new additions to the group include expertise on neoantigens and checkpoint resistance, which figures prominently in the 4 key areas they’re concentrating on. And there are dozens of biopharma alliances in the mix, multiplying now to the point where it can be difficult to stay on top of it all.
“I think the philosophy in the institute is doing things stepwise,” he adds, “not just big splashy stuff.”
That all fits into what Bluestone calls his sandbox analogy. There has to be a contained, organized approach to their work; a practical strategy driven by a set of clear goals. It isn’t an unlimited, beach-like perspective.
And the investigators have to play together in the sandbox.
That means sharing ideas in twice annual retreats or the monthly calls with the directors of the organization. Scientists get a chance to pitch new ideas and talk about what they’re working on, looking for ways to collaborate with others on projects or just get some fresh perspective.
PICI also wants to stay in the “white space,” says Bluestone, the areas of unmet medical need where progress is most needed — tough areas like pancreatic cancer.
At this point, the industry has pumped billions of dollars into cancer research in a short period of time, creating a field that in many respects dominates the global biopharma business. And Bluestone is acutely aware that staying on the cutting edge is no easy task.
“It’s crowded,” he notes, “in some respects it’s a bubble.”
But PICI plans to keep growing, adding scientists who are in this for the long haul until it gets to the point that the sandbox is full. Where that line is drawn, Bluestone adds, hasn’t been determined. But he thinks he’ll know it when he gets there.
Says Bluestone: “It’s just mind blowing what’s out there.”
— Anirban Maitra (@Aiims1742) October 19, 2017
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