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The Good And The Bad Of Silicon Valley Billionaires Funding Medical Research

Napster founder Sean Parker CREDIT: JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION/AP
Napster founder Sean Parker CREDIT: JORDAN STRAUSS/INVISION/AP

Napster founder Sean Parker rocked the medical world last week when he pledged $250 million to fund a hand-picked cancer research team. The enormous donation puts Parker among other tech and Silicon Valley billionaires who are using their wealth to help cure the social and public health ills plaguing society.

The initiative is unique in that it’s more than a donation for a good cause — it’s an ethos. Through the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the billionaire behind the file-sharing application Napster who went on to become Facebook’s first president is aiming to “hack” cancer by emphasizing creativity as the key to finding a cure.

Parker’s generosity is inspired by the 2011 death of his best friend and Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin, but it also follows a larger philanthropic trend of dominant industries grappling with finding solutions to major issues. Throughout history, industry titans have donated large gifts to schools, libraries, and churches. In the 21st century, it’s Silicon Valley’s turn.

“It’s not surprising in this day and age of open source information and global connectivity that public health and specific diseases would be of interest to a generation of philanthropists who made their fortunes in problem solving,” said Kelly O’Brien, Vice President of Development at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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Disrupting the status quo is what Silicon Valley excels at. But is scientists’ lack of innovation the real reason why cancer mortality rate has been hovering around 60 percent worldwide for decades?

“Sean Parker’s ‘let’s hack cancer’ approach is very characteristic of Silicon Valley philanthropy, focusing very minutely — sometimes to the point of micro managing — on specific solutions,” said Nancy Berlinger, a bioethics researcher at the Hastings Institute in Garrison, New York. “He’s proposing a more expeditious model where scientists agree to collaborate instead of working in silos.”

The approach assumes that scientists don’t currently talk to one another, or at least don’t openly share breakthroughs and tactics. Parker’s new institute joins 40 labs and 300 researchers with the expressed task of finding a treatment that will cure nearly all cancer types. But Berlinger wonders whether Parker’s approach is actually the right way to solve the broader issues that affect cancer mortality. “Understanding the science and biology of cancer cells isn’t the same as developing a therapy,” she said. “Problems of human health and human suffering are interwoven with other problems in society.”

Poverty, hunger, health care access, mass immigration, and government structures, for example, all contribute to an individual’s chances of surviving a chronic or life-threatening illness.

Child poverty in the United States is a growing problem: 60 percent are in households at or near the federal poverty level — less than $95,000 a year for a family of four. That means any public health solution has to take economics into account.

When it comes to solving major health crises such as cancer, money is both a savior and formidable antagonist.

On one hand, government investment in scientific work has been lagging, and researchers are struggling to get their projects funded.

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“The more time a researcher is spending writing grants, trying to raise money from individuals, is time they’re spending away outside their lab,” O’Brien said. “The biggest barrier researchers face is funding. Until [President Barack Obama’s] recent announcement of the moonshot, federal funding — while very significant — doesn’t keep pace with inflation. All of the institutions that receive research dollars are really required to augment that with philanthropy and industry support.”

On the other hand, personally motivated initiatives like Parker’s always bring criticism of donors having too much influence over issues that ostensibly affect millions of people.

But O’Brien believes that, while caution and skepticism is healthy, there haven’t been any examples to cause worry. “There’s a rightful concern of influence, or lack of diversity in approaches. On the flip side, I don’t think we really have examples of where that’s been the case,” she said. “The realities of the dangers of having a chronic disease, the stress on employment and families, the financial toxicity of disease. The good outweighs the risk. These problems are so large: More people will die from cancer in Africa than a number of diseases combined.”

That problem is compounded by a disparity in care, where the amount and quality of information patients get and the tools health care providers can access differs depending on how well-funded they are. “The more research, the faster it translates into treatments, the faster it cascades out to the community. Dollars are what help drive that process,” O’Brien said.

Even with mega-gifts like Parker’s and successful foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hundreds of millions of dollars doesn’t go as far as you would think.

“When gifts of this size are announced, of the total given away philanthropically in the United States — $350 billion — the total amount that goes to health, medicine, and disease related research is about 8 percent,” O’Brien said. “That is below what the impact of those issues are on our day-to-day lives…It lags behind.”

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Hopefully, Parker’s institute will pull double duty, finding new immunotherapy treatments and also inspire others to champion a health cause, no matter how big or small the gift.