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Could Immunotherapy Lead the Way to Fighting Cancer?

In the morning of June 24, 2014, a Tuesday, Vanessa Johnson Brandon awoke early in her small brick house in North Baltimore and felt really sick. At first, she thought she had food poisoning, but after hours of stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea, she called her daughter, Keara Grade, who was at work. “I feel like I’m losing it,” said the woman everyone called Miss Vanessa. Keara begged her to call an ambulance, but her mother wanted to wait until her husband, Marlon, got home so he could drive her to the emergency room. Doctors there took a CT scan, which revealed a large mass in her colon.

[…] Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is trying a more open-source approach. Parker rose to fame in 1999 when he co-founded the free song-swapping platform Napster. So it’s no surprise that he believes sharing information is crucial to moving immunotherapy forward. In 2016, he launched the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy with $250 million in funding from his own foundation. His goal is to collect ongoing data from the six major cancer centers in his consortium, plus individuals at several other centers. The parties sign agreements that give them ownership of their own work, but let other researchers see certain anonymized information they gather.

The Parker Institute’s CEO, Jeffrey Bluestone, is an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco who is also involved in research on Type 1 diabetes and studies immune tolerance in organ transplantation. With his understanding of how the immune system can backfire, he’s been particularly instrumental in finding ways to activate T-cells without causing dangerous side effects. In a 2016 speech at the annual tech conference Dreamforce, Bluestone called the immune system “an intelligent technology platform that is there for us to decode, and ultimately, utilize to beat cancer. Unlike the static, brute force attacks we’ve attempted on cancer in the past, this is a dynamic system that can out-evolve the tumor.”

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