Hospitals

The business case for Sean Parker’s $24M gift to Stanford for allergy research

Tech entrepreneur Sean Parker just pledged $24 million to Stanford University to set up a new institute for allergy research, and it comes at an important time: We might not be too far, he says, from finding a treatment that’s curative. The new center will be called the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research. It joins a […]

Tech entrepreneur Sean Parker just pledged $24 million to Stanford University to set up a new institute for allergy research, and it comes at an important time: We might not be too far, he says, from finding a treatment that’s curative.

The new center will be called the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research. It joins a small cadre of startups and pharma companies that are looking to move research past the over-the-counter antihistamine approach, with a general focus on helping patients achieve ultra-fast allergy desensitization.

Immunotherapy has, after all, progressed dramatically since the early food desensitization trials a century back. And the market’s ripe for a new approach in this field: Some $25 billion is spent each year on treating kids for food allergies, according to JAMA Pediatrics.

Parker – best known for creating Napster, launching Facebook, and having that wicked expensive Lord of the Rings-style wedding – himself has spent his life anaphylactically allergic to foods like the ubiquitous peanut. In fact, he says his wife has counted 14 emergency department visits since they’ve been together. As a child his asthma and allergies limited his ability to play sports or be otherwise physically active; the new father of two worries about passing these genes to his kids.

“It would be helpful if nobody, including my children, ever had to go through this,” Parker said. “This is a catalytic grant – coming at particular moment in time which has the scale necessary to conduct trials at the level necessary in order to move the whole field forward.”

Parker’s far from alone here: About a third of Americans have some variety of allergy, but what’s alarming is that allergy incidence is doubling every decade. About a quarter of those with food allergies will have a near-fatal anaphylactic reaction at some point in their lives.

It should be noted that some interesting work outside of Stanford is going on in allergy immunotherapy. For instance, Bay Area startup Allergen Research Corp. last year raised a respectable $17 million Series A for its food desensitization therapy. Its lead product, in Phase 2b trials, is a pharmaceutical-grade formulated peanut protein that, “with gradual, controlled updosing and ongoing maintenance dosing, has been shown to diminish allergic reactions to peanuts.”

European startups like Anergis and Abionic are also moving forward in this next-gen immunotherapy approach to allergies. And Merck had an immunotherapy pill approved earlier this year.

This isn’t Parker’s first foray into this space – he says he’s involved in several immunology projects, and has also donated more than $1 million to cancer immunotherapy research. And as for the work being done at Stanford – Parker says he can’t disclose what exactly’s going on at the new center, but in terms of a forthcoming clinical trial: “I’ll probably be the first in line.”

The interdisciplinary center will be led by Stanford immunology researcher Kari Nadeau, and will focus on figuring out what goes awry in the immune system during an allergic reaction. Through laboratory and computational research, clinical trials and community outreach, the center’s aiming to find some answers in conditions like asthma, eczema, food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders and others.

Nadeau has gained some renown for her work in immunotherapy; for instance, she developed the first combination, multi-food-allergy therapy that desensitizes patients to five different food allergens at a time. But it’s still nascent work – desensitization takes a long time, and makes patients and their families quite anxious. After all, food allergies gets more severe with repeated exposure: It’s a delicate dance to figure out the right balance between desensitization and overdose.

But as far as whether a cure’s in the cards? Here’s why Parker’s optimistic.

“We’ve reached a point finally where we know this is possible – we just need to conduct a disciplined process of scientific investigation,” Parker said. “A big part of what this grant aims to do is put in place an infrastructure to look at immune markers in patients over time, so we get a picture of what happens in patients that are successfully desensitized.

“That’s exactly the kind of work that needs to be done so this can be reduced to a single treatment that’s curative.”