WASHINGTON — The man announcing the largest single donation to cancer immunotherapy Wednesday has gone from being a sickly child growing up in nearby Herndon, Va., to a tech billionaire who has met frequently with President Obama, Vice President Biden and, more recently, his new friend, former president Jimmy Carter.
Sean Parker remains plagued by allergies and asthma, types of autoimmune disorders that afflicted his whole family, however, and it spurred his interest in immunotherapy to treat cancer.
"I've always been interested in trying to disentangle the riddle of the immune system," Parker said in a wide-ranging interview last month here.
The founder of the music file sharing service Napster and first president of Facebook doesn't really want to talk about who gets what of his contribution because "it's more fun for me to explain the science ... than the mechanics of the gift," Parker says.
The goals of the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, as he explains it, include determining why some people respond to one form of immunotherapy rather than another and if a combination of the two is better. Immunotherapy drugs basically unblock the immune system, especially in melanoma, and help it fight cancer.
"Is it your tumor, is it something in your immune system or is it something about you?" Parker says the institute hopes to determine.
Carter, who had late stage melanoma that had metastasized to the brain, was on Keytruda, one of the immunotherapy drugs, when his cancer became undetectable in December.
Parker, 36, hopes to make Carter’s success using immune therapy drugs far more common in cancer treatment with his $250 million donation to six of the country's top cancer centers.
The 2011 death of his close friend Laura Ziskin, a Hollywood filmmaker and cancer charity founder, inspired Parker. She got into a clinical trial for immunotherapy too late for it to prevent her death, he said.
"It turned me from intellectually curious to a militant activist," Parker said. "It's been pretty much full time since then."
Parker is no low-profile billionaire. His 2011 Tolkien-themed wedding in a Big Sur redwood forest was covered by Vanity Fair and, Wednesday night, actor Tom Hanks will host a launch party for the institute with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and John Legend slated to perform.
Some might scoff at what they see as Parker’s excesses. But Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering whose research is benefiting from Parker’s capital infusion, says the philanthropist’s high profile should attract more well-heeled donors. That, in turn, will rapidly accelerate Wolchok's two-decade work researching cancer immunotherapy.
The research hasn't helped Parker's personal ailments. He was hospitalized regularly in high school for his allergies and asthma and, at one point, returned 40 pounds heavier due to the steroids. If the early March interview was the week before, he might have canceled. He woke up that week — the same one he was to meet for the first time with Carter — with one eye nearly swollen shut due to allergies. And once the green pollen covers cars in this area, Parker says he basically can’t go outside.
Asked if he’s met with Obama, Parker shoots the first quizzical look in an hour-long interview to suggest it’s a silly question. He had met with the president on several occasions and, when asked if he had a picture of himself with Biden, he noted he should "run over to the White House to get one." (He didn't take a selfie, as he has "social media guilt" from his role at Facebook. Justin Timberlake played him in the movie The Social Network.)
In this town, where such statements could be seen as bloviation, Parker is decidedly blase about his connections. He off-handedly noted he first discussed making a major investment into immunotherapy with Ziskin at "Sting and Trudie's house in Tuscany."
He clearly gets more pleasure from knowing what immunotherapy can do for people like Memorial Sloan Kettering patient Mary Elizabeth Williams, who had stage 4 melanoma that had spread throughout her body. Within three months after starting an immunotherapy clinical trial five years ago, there was no evidence of cancer in Williams' body - and still isn't. She acknowledges immunotherapy is never going to be a "one size fits all cure, but there's a possibility to make a real dent in this ancient disease."
"My kids are going to come home tonight and their mom is going to make them dinner," Williams says. "It has been completely surreal."
Jayne O'Donnell, USA Today
Albany Herald April 17, 2016
NPS Awards Carter Honorary Ranger
PLAINS – Former President Jimmy Carter added a new title to his resume Sunday — honorary national park ranger.
National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis bestowed the award and title, the highest civilian honor awarded by the service, at a small ceremony Sunday at the Plains High School auditorium, which is now part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site.
“This is indeed an honor for me,” Carter said. “Before I became president, I was already deeply committed to the outdoors. I am very proud to have been an integral part of the conservation movement.”
National Park Service officials say the honor is reserved for those whose contributions to the national park system is exceptional. The service is marking its centennial this year.
“President Carter embodies the spirit and principles of the National Park Service, and it is a great honor for me to present him with this award,” Jarvis said. “As we look forward to our agency’s next 100 years, we can look back and be inspired by the incredible work of President Carter.”
Park Service officials noted that Carter created 39 National Park Service units during his administration, including the Martin Luther King Junior National Historic Site, Women’s Rights National Historic Park, Kaloko-Honokahau NHP and Boston African American NHS. The War in the Pacific National Historic Park expanded the span of the National Park Service across the international dateline to Guam.
Carter also established permanent protection of more than 56 million acres in Alaska through the designation of 13 national monuments on Dec. 1, 1978, with that single act more than doubling the land area protected under National Park Service management. His use of presidential proclamation to protect those lands from immediate threat was followed by continued advocacy for legislated protection of these lands and waters, culminating in the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, signed Dec. 2, 1980. Park Service officials say his actions ensured preservation of natural wonders and historic sites, and ensured that the traditions of the native Alaskan people could continue.
“We’ve preserved the unparalleled beauty of areas like the Misty Fiords and Admiralty Island National Monuments in southeast Alaska,” Carter remarked when he signed the ANILC Act. “And we’ve ensured that Alaska’s Eskimos and Indians and Aleuts can continue their traditional way of life. And we’ve given the state of Alaska, finally, the opportunity to choose the land which will be theirs through eternity.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve seen firsthand some of the splendors of Alaska. But many Americans have not. Now, whenever they or their children or their grandchildren choose to visit Alaska, they’ll have the opportunity to see much of its splendid beauty undiminished and its majesty untarnished.”
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are among the units he established that protect important resources and recreational opportunities near urban centers, benefiting millions of visitors annually. Urban parks continue today as the most visited units of the National Park System, Park Service officials say.
Carter also was a leader in the efforts to protect, recognize and assist communities and urban areas to support outdoor and urban recreation, establishing many programs which are now integral to the National Park Service Urban Agenda.
Inspiring global audiences through the Carter legacy
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter meet with Sean Parker at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Ga., to discuss immunotherapy and drug accessibility.(Photo: Friends of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Site)