Sean Parker Grants $10 Million To Aid Radical Autoimmune Research For Type 1 Diabetes

Sean Parker has been very philanthropic lately, particularly with life sciences research. Parker announced he’d given $600 million to a foundation with his name on it this summer and $24 million last December to establish an allergy research center, also bearing his name. He’s now given $10 million toward a research lab at the University of California, San Francisco, called the Sean N. Parker Autoimmune Research Laboratory.

The goal of the lab is to see if it’s possible to use cell therapy to cure type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune disorders. These types of disorders occur when the body’s immune system, which normally defends against harmful bacteria and viruses, starts attacking its own cells. It’s not entirely clear why this happens.

Parker has ongoing interest in immunology, partly due to his own autoimmune and allergy-related disorders. He’s putting $10 million toward research that can demonstrate the case for using cell therapy, or harnessing the immune system to recognize destructive cells, to treat autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. And he hopes the lab will be able to make a breakthrough in this type of research within two to five years.

What’s so interesting about this moment in time is that just 10 years ago this all seemed maybe theoretically possible but it seemed like science fiction and now it’s happening in the clinic regularly. Sean Parker
The theory behind it is similar to T-cell immunotherapy that has come up as a viable option to treating cancer patients in recent years. In cancer immunotherapy, physicians target cancer not with poisons throughout the body using chemotherapy or by cutting the patient open and removing cancerous tissue, but by infusing tumor-specific cytotoxic T cells, or cells that are designed to directly kill the cancer cells.

“What’s so interesting about this moment in time is that just 10 years ago this all seemed maybe theoretically possible but it seemed like science fiction and now it’s happening in the clinic regularly,” Parker said of cell immunotherapy and its applications. “We’re at the cusp of a revolution in many different fields.”

The new lab will exist within UCSF’s Diabetes Center and the universities leading immunologist Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone will head the facility. Bluestone has done extensive research in the field of T-cell activation and co-stimulation and, according to UCSF, his work has led to the development of multiple therapies that promote immune tolerance.

His hope is that with this research he can create drugs that “re-educate” the immune system to heal itself rather than create a dependence on the drug – an important step for those with type 1 diabetes who must regularly take a shot of insulin.

“And so our focus has been on this small population of regulatory T cells that are so critical to maintaining immune homeostasis in the body…and how we can tap into this regulatory pathway to shut down the unwanted immune response while preserving the wanted immune response to viruses and bacterial infections and the like,” Bluestone said. “And so to do this is not simple. It requires a lot of money, a lot of people and a lot of creative thinking.”

Parker and Bluestone caution that this grant is not a guarantee something will come of it but is a jumping-off point for exploratory research.

“It often doesn’t take an enormous grant in order to move a field forward,” Parker said. “I’m much more targeted and focused on ‘okay where are there places that need a catalyst, where that catalyst can get a field to the next level.'”

Parker is a catalyst for many technologies, from the music industry and social networks and now in the life sciences. Autoimmune disorders are a huge mountain to tackle within that realm. There are more than 80 known autoimmune disorders affecting between 14 and 22 million people in the United States, and it is one of the leading causes of death for women under 65, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Establishing solid research on potential therapies that get at the root of type 1 diabetes would be big – even better if the research can go beyond that to treatments for other autoimmune disorders or possibly organ transplants and other non-immune diseases, such as heart disease, muscular dystrophy, and obesity.

“This is literally a life or death situation with a diabetes 1 patient and in that sense there’s a real need to get down to the mechanistic level and understand how to repair the immune system so that it no longer produces these self-reactive T cells and in the event that it does those T cells are sufficiently suppressed by immunosuppressive elements like regulatory T cells,” Parker said.