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Better Together: Penn Joins Unprecedented Collaboration to Tackle Cancer Immunotherapy

It had all the makings of a science-fiction blockbuster: A can’t-lose mission with high stakes, an effort to trick a devious enemy into destroying itself, the promise of gizmos like futuristic cell replicas on tiny chips, and a cast of Hollywood’s most beautiful, bold-face names – plus a killer sound track.

The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy officially launched last week, rocketing a collaboration of experts from Penn, Memorial Sloan Kettering, the University of California at San Francisco and Los Angeles, Stanford University, and MD Anderson into a new era for cancer research.

The venture is backed by Napster cofounder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, whose $250 million gift to start the PICI represents a new high water mark in the investment to fight cancer using immunotherapy. The PICI is cemented by a unique agreement to share discoveries quickly and seamlessly among participating institutions in order to accelerate new cancer therapies.

The new collaboration kicked off with an opportunity for the PICI scientists to discuss their plans during an event moderated by Katie Couric, followed by an evening gala at Sean Parker’s home. A dispatch from the Washington Post captured the celebratory – and unconventional, by Hollywood standards – vibe of the gala:

On the grounds of the billionaire's mansion, which glows with several thousand white candles and is decorated with elaborate arrangements of succulents, it is as if the world has been turned upside down. Tom Hanks, Keira Knightly, Katie Couric and Bradley Cooper are milling about. California Gov. Jerry Brown makes a cameo appearance. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are here, too.

But the guests of honor, the people everyone is lining up to take selfies with, are cancer researchers sporting bow ties.

Tonight, Hanks says, is about “the science geeks and nerds and doctors, the people who live their lives under hideous fluorescent lighting.”

Among them: Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor of Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center, who will direct the Parker Institute at Penn.

“I’m not just optimistic -- I’m convinced” that the collaboration will speed new treatments to help more patients, June told Getty Images as he walked the red carpet into the gala. “It’s an amazing time to celebrate. We have the tools, and we have the team of people working together.”

12983830_10153617308267613_5241287758360654865_oThe celebration included performances from John Legend – just hours before his wife, Chrissy Teigen, gave birth to the couple’s first child – the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Lady Gaga. But first, Philadelphia native and Oscar-nominated film star Bradley Cooper took the stage to introduce Emily Whitehead, the first pediatric patient to participate in a clinical trial of the Penn-developed personalized cellular therapy, also known as CAR T cell therapy. Nearly four years after her treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she remains in remission. June and the pediatric trial's leader, Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, the Yetta Deitch Novotny Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Cancer Immunotherapy Program at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, appeared in a gala video detailing her journey. Cooper shared his own story of caring for his father, who passed away from lung cancer in 2011, and through Emily’s experience, painted a picture of hope for other families. People detailed the story:

Doctors tried everything to help Whitehead, but nothing worked. Two years after her diagnosis, her parents enrolled her in an experimental treatment program at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The procedure had never been tested on a child, "but Emily's mom and dad insisted that they wanted her to be the first," Cooper said.

"She was so brave to take this risk and in the years to come it is with the Parker Institute wants to offer every patient and their family more chances to try ground breaking treatments that will help them live a full and healthy life like Emily," Cooper concluded.

Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research and associate director of translational research in the Abramson Cancer Center, and John Wherry, PhD, a professor of Microbiology and director of Penn’s Institute for Immunology, will serve as co-directors of the PICI at Penn.

Despite the enthusiasm and rock star-like reception he and his collaborators received during the launch events, June notes thehurdles to making practice-changing progress are high: “It’s a complicated problem, and it’s going to take time.”

12973111_10153617308207613_2655789171922954020_oAt Penn, much of the new work will take place in the lab. Wherry, for instance, will embark on new studies of the mechanisms underlying so-called T cell exhaustion, a phenomenon in which these crucial immune system soldiers tire out and allow cancer gain a foothold in the body. The team also has plans to create new models of human tumor cells growing in a tissue microenvironment on a chip the size of the USB drive – an approach that Wired recently noted creates an environment in which “cells react more realistically to stimuli than they would in a Petri dish.”

Vonderheide’s work on cancer prevention vaccines – for patients at high genetic risk of developing cancer and those who’ve already had cancer and are likely to relapse – will also be a cornerstone of Penn’s PICI projects, along with new combination immunotherapies.

Another project, conducted alongside Penn veterinarians, aims to develop improve animal health, too, by establishing a CAR T cell therapies for dogs – which will in turn advance research into new targets for human CAR T cells.

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