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Jump to: Cancer Heroes | Research | Clinical Trials | Partnerships | Hero Spotlights
Sean Parker’s vision for the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) has been clear from the beginning: bring the top researchers together, give them everything they need to pursue and push their best ideas forward and eliminate the barriers in their way.
In just over three years, we’ve been hard at work, putting that vision into action. We work hand-in-hand with our network and experts across the field to supercharge scientific discoveries that answer the fundamental questions in cancer immunotherapy. We launch and manage novel clinical trials with the goal of getting the best treatments to patients. We build systems that aggregate and process data – making every initiative more informed than the last and providing direction for where to go next. And we invest in emerging companies with bold ideas and work with industry partners to help us propel our research.
In short, we’re transforming the way cancer research is done to save lives. Faster.
Our progress speaks for itself. Take a look to see what we’ve achieved over the past year.
…So we make every dollar count. The vast majority of our budget – 85 percent – goes toward our research efforts, which includes clinical trials, research projects and operations, informatics, grants and engaging our network of researchers. Our support services ensure we have the right people and resources to fuel our mission each day.
Thank you to our partners for their generous contributions that elevate our research to live out the goal we all share: making all cancers curable.
PICI clinical development partners and/or gifts of $10,000 or higher between Jan. 1, 2019 – Jan. 31, 2020.
We invest in emerging companies that share our vision. Our goal: work together to propel cutting-edge research and speed discoveries. With patients always coming first.
Hear from our investigators who are creating a brighter future for patients
“PICI was designed to foster every part of the scientific process – from supporting fundamental discoveries to translating them into clinical trials to bringing in the right companies to accelerate the science – all to make a difference in people’s lives. Sean’s vision bridges individual labs from multiple institutions across the country, and brings these scientists together throughout the year to build trust and relationships. This camaraderie and PICI’s unique model are both essential components for translating new opportunities into the best therapies for patients.”
Image courtesy of UCSF
“My team and I have been able to pursue both translational and high-risk projects in CAR-T cell therapy because of PICI’s support. We recently opened a phase 1 clinical trial on the CD19/CD20 bispecific CAR-T cell therapy developed in my lab. We are attacking two targets simultaneously to improve patient responses, and we’re already seeing positive results. This trial would not have happened without PICI.”
“I remain awestruck by my friends and colleagues within PICI. The work of many PICI researchers served as early inspiration for me to enter the field of cancer immunology. To collectively put our heads together focused on achieving a shared goal has been a powerful experience. Almost daily, I can see we are moving one step closer to curing cancer using the immune system.”
Image courtesy of MSK
Uncovering answers to the most fundamental questions in cancer immunotherapy research
Why do some cancer patients treated with immunotherapy develop autoimmune diseases? Can we find a way to predict and prevent autoimmunity? To answer these questions, we built a powerful research collaboration across academic, nonprofit and industry partners to explore the intersection of these chronic diseases.
We’ve teamed up with two leaders in diabetes research, JDRF and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, to co-fund nearly $10 million in autoimmunity research to shed light on what causes type 1 diabetes in some patients after treatment with checkpoint inhibitors.
“This collaboration combines leading experts in diabetes and cancer immunology to accomplish a feat that has never been achieved: permanently turning off an autoimmune response in humans,” said Aaron J. Kowalski, PhD, JDRF President and CEO. “Investing in this research will help us better understand, in real time, how type 1 diabetes develops and potentially disable the immune system so that disease progression never happens.”
In addition to diabetes, we will look at other autoimmune diseases including thyroiditis, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), hypophysitis (a disease that affects the pituitary gland) and others. We launched our AEROSMITH study to collect and analyze clinical data and blood samples from patients during treatment to help us find answers about autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Since AEROSMITH launched in March 2019, more than 50 community oncology practices have joined the consortium, and we have collected and processed blood samples from almost 600 patients toward our goal of 1,600. Once we have a sufficient number of samples, our investigators will start to unearth insights about why and how autoimmunity occurs so that immunotherapy can be used to treat more cancer patients more effectively.
We started with a constellation of breast cancer experts across academia, industry and nonprofit. We zeroed in on the most pressing scientific questions in breast cancer research. Then we did what we do best: we moved efficiently and nimbly to launch a clinical research study because patients can’t wait.
In March 2019, the FDA approved the first immunotherapy combination treatment (checkpoint inhibitor atezolizumab and the chemotherapy nab-paclitaxel) for metastatic triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). By January 2020, we kicked off our TRIBUTE study to identify the biomarkers that can predict who will respond to this treatment and determine whether the cancer is advancing.
We are using the PICI BioTrust, our sample repository and assay suite, to collect tumor tissue, blood samples and gut microbiome samples from patients treated with the approved combination. Then we’ll comprehensively analyze the samples along with clinical data to shed light on why this treatment works for some patients and not others.
“There is tremendous excitement in the breast cancer field because of the recent FDA approval, but we know that many patients in the trial that led to the approval did not respond to the therapy,” said Elizabeth Mittendorf, MD, PhD, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and lead researcher on this study.
The potential of immunotherapy is immense. The immune system is our best chance in curing cancer—all cancers, at all stages, for all patients. But we can’t – and won’t – do the best science in silos.
We approach the challenges in cancer immunotherapy research from a new angle. We collaborate with scientific leaders in academia, nonprofit and industry. We convene these top experts on emerging topics that impact the entire field. And we identify the most promising solutions for patients.
Here’s what that looks like:
Image courtesy of UCLA
PICI scientists at UCLA found that treating glioblastoma patients with a checkpoint inhibitor drug called pembrolizumab before surgery nearly doubled median survival time, according to results published in the journal Nature Medicine in February 2019.
“These results are very encouraging,” said senior author Robert Prins, PhD, of UCLA. “It’s one of the few times we’ve seen positive survival results using immunotherapy in this type of brain cancer.”
Scientists from PICI at Stanford shed new light on the origins of tumor-fighting immune cells following immunotherapy treatment with anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors. Using single-cell RNA sequencing technology, the group discovered that T-cells homing in on cancer did not appear to come from tumors as previously suspected.
“The big surprise is that the T-cells sitting in the tumor before the start of checkpoint inhibition treatment are inert,” said Howard Y. Chang, MD, PhD, of Stanford and senior author on the study. “The vast majority of the tumor-specific T-cells that are proliferating come from outside the tumor.”
Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD, a Parker Bridge Fellow at Stanford, was co-first author on the paper. The research was published in Nature Medicine in July 2019.
Groundbreaking immunotherapy studies that move forward at the speed of life
Image courtesy of MD Anderson
A leading PICI researcher, Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, of the University of Pennsylvania, spent 10 years trying to launch a study to test a promising combination therapy for pancreatic cancer. Despite strong preclinical data and an immense patient need, it hadn’t moved forward. When he brought the idea to PICI, we launched the trial in less than six months.
PICI brought in a mix of the right partners – the Cancer Research Institute, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Apexigen – to work together. And our robust, in-house infrastructure made it a reality: we finalized the clinical protocol, filed the Investigational New Drug application, standardized the sample collections, opened and enrolled a multicenter clinical study and analyzed the data.
Today, the early results speak for themselves. Our team of scientists debuted the Phase 1 results at the clinical trials plenary session at the 2019 American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting, showing that combining immunotherapy with chemotherapy shrank tumors in a majority of advanced pancreatic cancer patients – 20 out of 24. Also, several patients remained on treatment for a year or more, indicating that the combination was capable of inducing long-lasting responses. This is the first demonstration that immunotherapy can have a positive effect in pancreatic cancer.
The trial continues to progress, and we completed enrollment for Phase 2 in June 2019.
Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania
Some think it sounds like science fiction. But it has potential to be the next big breakthrough in medicine, including cancer immunotherapy. PICI, along with Tmunity Therapeutics, is supporting a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania that uses CRISPR/Cas9 technology to genetically edit a patient’s immune cells. This first-ever clinical trial to test this approach in humans in the U.S. aims to find a novel, safe way to outsmart cancer.
The team was invited to present initial findings at the 2019 American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition. The early results showed that using this approach appears safe and feasible for patients. Researchers at Penn have infused three participants in the trial so far – two with multiple myeloma and one with sarcoma – with no serious side effects.
Sean Parker’s vision is to make sure PICI researchers, like cell therapy pioneer Carl June, MD, lead investigator on this trial, have the support they need to bring bold ideas like this to life.
“These early findings are the first step as we determine if this new, breakthrough technology can help rewrite how we treat patients with cancer and perhaps other deadly diseases,” said Parker in a news announcement.
The research team at Penn published findings in Science on February 6, 2020, showing that genetically-edited immune cells can “survive and thrive” after being infused into cancer patients.
From a news announcement
We’ve partnered with CRI and BMS to discover cancer biomarkers that can identify “hot” tumors that will respond to immunotherapy and “cold” tumors that may need combination treatments to respond. Our goal: give doctors access to tests that help them develop more personalized treatments for patients.
We tested single and combination checkpoint inhibitor treatments in advanced melanoma patients who did not respond to PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor treatments. We are looking for potential biomarkers to predict how patients may respond. Understanding PD-1 resistance will help us bring immunotherapy to more patients.
Could the right gut bacteria be immunotherapy’s best new ally? In collaboration with MD Anderson and Seres Therapeutics, we launched a first-of-its-kind microbiome-cancer immunotherapy clinical trial for advanced melanoma patients.
Using an adaptive “platform” design, we’re testing a variety of immunotherapy treatment combinations to fight an advanced prostate cancer, metastatic CRPC, that typically hasn’t responded to immunotherapy. This efficient model can identify new immunotherapies for prostate cancer patients faster.
Pancreatic cancer has been labeled as silent and deadly and doesn’t typically respond to immunotherapy. So we’re tackling it with a new approach – by combining chemotherapy with immunotherapy agents, and using a novel sequence of the drugs based on findings from our scientists.
We’re supporting the first clinical trial in the US to use CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing to outsmart solid tumors in patients. How do we do it? By using cutting-edge technology to engineer longer lasting killer T-cells for more effective treatment.
Endless amounts of data may seem overwhelming at first look. But at PICI, we see it as endless promise for patients. Our informatics experts are laser focused on turning vast amounts of data into knowledge to answer some of the most important questions in cancer immunotherapy.
This means that PICI goes beyond simply conducting clinical trials and research studies. We dig deeper to learn why – why are certain patients responding to treatment while others aren’t? Why are we seeing certain outcomes? Can public data provide more context around our findings?
With so much data, our standardized, streamlined approach makes all the difference. First we collect data from our trials, studies, research institutions and partners. This data tells us in detail what is going on biologically and medically with the patients. Then we clean, organize and standardize the data so we’re comparing apples to apples. From there, we turn huge data files into shorter summaries and store them into our unified data library.
All of this is possible because our team has built powerful data platforms and tools – like CANDEL, our Cancer Data and Evidence Library, and Mantis, a multi-channel imaging viewer – that allow us to look across numerous processed datasets from many sources all at once. This way, we can spend more time analyzing the data for projects like our PRINCE and AMADEUS clinical trials.
In the end, we use the answers we uncover to drive what we do next, whether it be a clinical trial, a research study or deeper analysis.
Forge partnerships to drive the best outcomes
Competition has long been a barrier in cancer research. We aren’t here to compete. We’re here to collaborate. PICI shares many of the same goals as the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). So early in our inception, we joined forces on one charge: to coordinate and rapidly initiate clinical studies across our networks to answer some of the most difficult questions in immunotherapy research.
Image courtesy of CRI
“CRI sees PICI as an ideal partner in advancing our shared goal to unlock the full potential of next-generation, precision cancer immunotherapy,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, CEO and director of scientific affairs at CRI. “We believe we will accomplish this more quickly and more efficiently by combining CRI’s unique Clinical Accelerator resources and academic and industry relationships with PICI’s expert capabilities in clinical trials management, computational biology and bioinformatics, and correlative science. The clinical trials we are conducting together provide deep immunological insights that inform future studies and move the field forward faster.”
By working together and combining our expertise, we saw positive results play out on many projects throughout 2019:
“The powerful collaboration between the CRI Clinical Accelerator and PICI has in a short time already demonstrated its unique ability to bring together the world’s leading experts in immuno-oncology to conceive, design and launch science-driven clinical trials built on robust, adaptable platforms,” said Vanessa M. Lucey, PhD, MBA, Director, Venture Fund and Clinical Accelerator at CRI. “We are testing novel combinations of the most promising IO drugs—spurring clinical innovation to tackle hard-to-treat cancers and expand the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer patients.”
When our researchers have a promising idea, our goal is to make it a reality. This story starts with researchers, Alex Marson, MD, PhD, from UCSF, John Wherry, PhD, from Penn and Nick Haining, BCh, BM, previously of Dana-Farber, and others, brainstorming and sharing ideas at a PICI scientific retreat. Fast forward to October 2019, when their idea debuted as ArsenalBio, a company that will create an “arsenal of tools” to help fight solid tumors with cell therapies.
“ArsenalBio allows scientists to rewrite vast stretches of code to give T-cells dramatic new functions – that means they can be made to be more effective at killing cancer and a broad spectrum of other diseases,” said Sean Parker in a news announcement.
“It’s also very rewarding to see ArsenalBio born from the deep collaboration of PICI investigators – who worked together across research centers, hospitals and universities on the science behind these technologies. The company’s very existence demonstrates how much faster and better we can get therapies from bench to bedside when we collaborate and put patients first.”
Meet some of the brilliant minds that work tirelessly so, one day, we won’t have to fear cancer
Since our inception, we’ve been planning for the future. And the brightest young investigators in cancer immunotherapy are the future. Throughout 2019, we continued to empower and train the next generation of leaders through retreats, networking opportunities, access to cutting-edge tools and resources, and our early career researchers program.
In February 2019, we welcomed our third class of Parker Scholars, Bridge Fellows and Senior Fellows. These seven talented scientists received a total of up to $3.1 million in funding. But we didn’t stop there. We are challenging them to explore their boldest ideas, and we are connecting them with leading researchers and their peers to push the boundaries of their research.
“Being part of the Parker Institute’s family has been an exceptional experience,” said Roberta Zappasodi, PhD, Parker Bridge Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “I’ve been exposed to new science by some of the most impactful scientists, which has inspired me and provided me with a timely and comprehensive understanding of key developments in the cancer immunotherapy field. When I go back to my lab after these interactions, I think more broadly and in a more creative way, which helps me ask the right questions and ultimately move my research forward more efficiently.”
In addition to Zappasodi, the 2019 class includes Parker Scholars Kenneth Hu, PhD, of UCSF, Tijana Martinov, PhD, of Fred Hutch, and Sierra McDonald, PhD candidate of Penn, Parker Bridge Fellows Cécile Alanio, MD, PhD, of Penn, and Matthew Gubin, PhD, of MD Anderson, and Parker Senior Fellow Justin Eyquem, PhD, of UCSF.
In April 2019, we convened 15 of the top young investigators in cancer immunotherapy so they could meet their peers at different research institutions, exchange ideas and collaborate. The scientific discussions ran the gamut from natural killer cells to cancer vaccines, artificial intelligence to the microbiome. Breakout sessions focused on using informatics in cancer research, how to design clinical trials and career development.
During the panel discussions, each early career researcher gave a short presentation on their research. Melody Smith, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, described her work on the relationship between the gut microbiome and CAR-T response. “Each of us are looking at ways to target limitations with CAR-T from so many angles. From structure to the microbiome, I think that there is a natural breeding ground for collaboration for some of us in the future.”
PICI Vice President Lisa Butterfield, PhD, closed out the day with her words of wisdom, noting just how much personal relationships play an important role for those looking to make progress in science, or any field. This was advice that many of the researchers acted on that day.
For the past 40 years, PICI investigator Stephen Forman, MD, of City of Hope, has gone to work every day to care for patients and tackle some of the toughest challenges in cancer research. He was at the forefront of stem cell transplantation in the 1970s-80s and more recently has been a pioneer in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-engineered T-cell therapy for both hematologic malignancies and solid tumors. Dr. Forman joined PICI’s network to help advance our research agenda in cell therapy, with a focus on lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma, as well as brain, breast, pancreatic, ovarian and prostate cancers.
“I was drawn to the commonness of purpose that Sean organized for the Parker Institute as it mirrored our own commitment,” Dr. Forman said. “I recognized quickly that these are the people who are making immunotherapy a field and hopefully a therapy for patients with cancer. My research team and I wanted to contribute, collaborate and do our part. We wanted to learn from our friends and colleagues. It’s a privilege to be a part of this noble effort.”
The gut microbiome has been a hot topic in the news recently. And it’s a hot topic in cancer research too. Working alongside Jennifer Wargo, MD, MMSc, and a team of researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center, PICI Scientist Christine Spencer, PhD, found that taking over-the-counter probiotic supplements was associated with a 70 percent lower chance of response to cancer immunotherapy treatment with anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors in melanoma patients. The team also found that probiotics were linked to lower diversity in the gut microbiome, previously found to be associated with poorer immunotherapy response.
PICI-Supported Research Projects
Clinical Trials in Progress
Social Media Impressions
Samples in the PICI Biorepository
Articles Published by PICI Investigators
Industry and Nonprofit Collaborators
The Parker Institute touts early results in pancreatic trial – and a new model to accelerate drug development
March 31, 2019
Nonprofits announce groundbreaking research initiative
May 29, 2019
“A lot has happened in three years.” What’s going on with the Parker Institute?
February 26, 2019
ArsenalBio emerges from stealth with $85 million and a dream team to fight cancer
October 17, 2019
New study suggests diet may affect response to cancer immunotherapy drugs
February 27, 2019
Crispr takes its first steps in editing genes to fight cancer
November 16, 2019
We’re proud of all that we accomplished alongside our partners in academia, nonprofit and industry in 2019. But we’re not stopping there. This coming year we’ll push further into immunotherapy – focusing on the patients and cancers that aren’t currently responding to treatment.
We’ll continue to build on everything we’ve learned, diving deep into areas where we see the most potential, including expanding our work in cell therapies, which have revolutionized cancer care and continue to expand rapidly. We’ll build on research projects focused on glioblastoma to launch a clinical trial where we can test several therapies under one umbrella. And based on data from our PRINCE trial, we’ll conduct a platform study to test science-driven, novel combinations for pancreatic cancer patients. Plus so much more.
As always, collaboration will remain the core of what we do, as we continue to work with our network while also seeking new collaborators.
We’ll continue to ask bold questions and take risks to uncover the next big breakthroughs in cancer research – never shying away from a challenge. Cancer patients can’t wait, and neither will we.
Make a bold bet with us – to turn all cancers into curable diseases.