Philanthropy could lead to faster cures by funding riskier research—projects more likely to fail but with potentially high impact—and promoting better teamwork among researchers. However, researchers and fundraisers say that it should augment, not replace, government funding.

A pathology professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Max Krummel, PhD, specializes in visualizing immune cells within tumors. Watching cells interact in the lymph nodes of mice with melanoma, his teamfound that CD141+ dendritic cells are critical for priming T cells to fight cancer (Cancer Cell 2016;30:324–36). To view the cellular interactions, the researchers crossed several mouse strains in which distinct immune cell types emitted different fluorescent hues. The result: a rainbow-like strain, dubbed Immunebow, to track all the immune players within a tumor in real time in one animal—without costly, tedious breedings.

To fund his work, Krummel won a $200,000 philanthropic grant. Had he tried for government funding, the Immunebow mouse would likely have remained a dream. “These days you need to have the work at least half done before you bother to apply” for an NIH grant, says UCSF colleague Lewis Lanier, PhD.

The Immunebow project is one example of a creative, potentially high-impact project that is considerably experimental and may not bear fruit. Yet the conviction that such work could speed development of lifesaving therapies spurred entrepreneur Sean Parker to give $250 million in April to launch the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. His goal is to transform the research process by reducing red tape and boosting transparency and data sharing.

Although it has no physical hub, the institute links more than 40 labs and 300 researchers at six institutions—Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York, NY),Stanford Medicine (Palo Alto, CA), the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the University of California, Los Angeles, and UCSF, where Lanier serves as the site's director. Each director can decide how their site spends its Parker money, so ideas such as Krummel's can be tested quickly. “If you have a good idea, you should get the money now,” Lanier says. “If it's wrong, you can move on.”

Center directors hold monthly teleconferences to discuss projects that they've backed. Twice a year, about a dozen people from each center gather with the institute's board of directors and scientific advisors to present their research and brainstorm ideas. Day to day, the institute's far-flung scientists share data and resources and, as a group, iron out details of clinical trials and other issues with drug companies.

For some, the team approach is a paradigm shift. For example, Parker Institute members share their manuscripts at the time of submission. “I can read what an investigator at MD Anderson is doing long before it comes out in print,” says Crystal Mackall, MD, who leads the Stanford site.

In addition, part of the revenue from licensed technology is shared with the whole institute. Plus, for multisite clinical trials, when one center's institutional review board approves a protocol, the other five agree to sign off. “That saves an incredible amount of time,” Lanier says.


The red line represents the annual change in the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI). The gap between the BRDPI and appropriated funds demonstrates the NIH's loss of purchasing power due to inflation—a gap that philanthropy alone cannot fill.

Several other multimillion-dollar donations helped make 2016 a banner year for biomedical philanthropy. For example, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a gift of $125 million to Johns Hopkins University to launch an institute focused on cancer immunotherapy. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen pledged $100 million to support interdisciplinary research at the frontiers of bioscience. Oracle founder Larry Ellison donated $200 million to create an interdisciplinary cancer treatment center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, MD, announced a $3 billion initiative with the goal of “curing, preventing, and managing all diseases this century.” In comparison, mega-donors pledged approximately $560 million toward biomedical research in 2015.

Private dollars have become essential as federal funds for academic research and development (R&D) have dropped more than 11% since 2011—the longest multiyear decline since data collection began in 1972, notes Marc Kastner, PhD, president of Science Philanthropy Alliance.

“We would hope that, with the NCI, the federal government would not be so shortsighted to think that that money is meant to replace something as opposed to supplement something,” says Philip Greenberg, MD, head of immunology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. While private giving hovers in the single-digit billions, the NIH budget totals more than $30 billion a year.

Still, philanthropy plays an important role by helping to “de-risk the R&D process,” says Melissa Stevens, MBA, executive director of the Milken Institute's Center for Strategic Philanthropy. Private funding can help researchers build preclinical models, for example, or organize patient networks that make it easier for companies to run trials. Solid results could then woo follow-on funders, she says. –Esther Landhuis

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