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In December, entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker donated $24 million to establish the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University. His gift, one of the largest private donations to allergy research in the United States to date, provides both expendable and endowed support for innovative clinical research and care, state-of-the-art equipment, and top-ranked research scientists. Of the $24 million total, $4 million will be used as a dollar-for-dollar challenge match for all other new gifts to the Center.
Why is the subject of allergy research so important to you?
I understand the dramatic effect allergies can have on someone’s life and how difficult it can be to manage them. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions that allergies are simply a nuisance, but in fact, they can be debilitating. I’ve personally dealt with anaphylactic allergies to a number of foods, and despite carrying EpiPens and a variety of other medications designed to stop the reaction, I know I’m not safe until I get to an emergency room and am able to get treatment. As a new parent, I also understand the anxiety that parents feel about every meal in a restaurant or when they send their child off to school or to a friend’s house.
Finding a safe and durable treatment for allergies would transform the lives of patients and their families, but we need to make catalytic changes to allergy research. I believe that allergies are an immunological problem that should be tackled by immunologists. Given how far the field of immunology has come in the last decade, I began to think that allergy research was not benefiting from the recent breakthroughs in basic immunology. Allergy research, it seemed, was lagging behind.
In addition, there was a critical need for funding the basic science around immune mechanisms driving the sensitization and desensitization in allergy. I wanted to help close this gap by funding the basic science as well as the translational clinical research intended to accelerate the development of new treatments for patients so more people can be enrolled and better treatments can be applied more quickly.
Your experience with food allergies led you to learn about how allergies are currently treated and understood. What did you find?
Since non-food allergies such as ragweed, pollen, and cat dander have been treated with desensitization therapies for decades, it was frustrating to find that clinicians were unwilling to consider this approach in the case of food allergy. I was told over and over by renowned allergists that this approach would not work. But nobody ever offered a compelling reason why it would not.
Food allergies trigger the same immune response as other allergies, just at a much higher concentration level. There was no theoretical reason why desensitization therapies would not work on food allergies. Allergists in non-hospital settings just felt it was too risky to administer food allergens by injection or some other route of administration. The potential side effects were too great.
Luckily a few dedicated researchers managed to push the envelope. Over the past several decades, research led by scientists like Dr. Kari Nadeau has made desensitization via oral immunotherapy (OIT) a viable option for children and adults. With OIT the allergen is fed to patients at increasing amounts over time, leading to desensitization. While this approach is now proven to work in some cases, researchers still need to uncover the interaction between immune cells at a molecular level to explain the cause of allergies and determine how to cure them swiftly and safely.
You were very strategic about creating a dedicated allergy research center. Can you discuss why you selected Stanford, and why you made your gift now?
As someone who has spent half my career making venture investments, I wanted to very cautiously and carefully look at the field because it didn’t make sense to deploy a lot of capital if the timing wasn’t exactly right. The goal is really important to keep in mind. It’s not just enough to come up with slightly better incremental improvements on the kind of treatments that are out there. The goal is actually to achieve a cure for all allergies.
Like any good venture investment, you need the right group of people, the right team that really understands the problem and approaches it in the right way at the right time. You need certain resources available to you that weren’t available to you before, and you need certain technologies that weren’t available before.
I have a lot of respect for Stanford’s immunology program and have always thought we need to figure out a way to combine all of the genomics and immune marker monitoring in this context.
It was abundantly clear that the team at Stanford led by Dr. Nadeau is taking a very different approach from other programs and really wants to get beyond the conventional therapeutic interventions. It doesn’t mean the medical community stops pursuing oral immunotherapy, but researchers have to approach allergies in a much more scientifically rigorous way.
What is your vision of the future for children and adults with allergies?
My vision is that someone with allergies will be able to go to their neighborhood allergist—in a non-hospital setting—and receive a safe treatment that is permanently effective.
I believe we are relatively close to a point where all allergies can be cured, and that’s why I’m committed to supporting Dr. Nadeau and her research through a catalytic grant to conduct trials at levels capable of moving the entire field forward.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the Lucile Packard Children's News.