Sean Parker of Napster fame is donating $24 million to create a new research institute at Stanford University with the mission of finding a cure -- not just another treatment -- for allergies.
In announcing the gift, the 35-year-old technology whiz revealed that he has suffered from life-threatening food allergies and asthma most of his life. He said he missed the final weeks of his senior year at Chantilly High School in Virginia due to complications from allergies and that his wife estimates that he has been hospitalized 14 times in the time they have known each other.
"We think of allergies as being a nuisance or inconvenience, but there are a huge number of people for whom it is pretty debilitating,” Parker, who is estimated by Forbes to be worth $3 billion, said during a conference call with reporters.
Parker, co-founder of the Napster file sharing service and Facebook’s founding president, said that while the number of people with allergies is rising, research in the field has been “stuck in the stone ages.”
“It has been frustrating to watch,” he said.
About 30 percent of the global population is affected by allergies each day. Those with environmental allergies to things like pollen often get by with taking daily antihistamine pills and nasal sprays. Some patients have been able to increase their tolerance through shots in the arm that expose them to tiny amounts of allergens, but allergy shots don’t work for everyone.
Those with food allergies are not as lucky. There are no Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments, so sufferers must avoid exposure to whatever they are allergic to. Many must carry around devices with epinephrine, an adrenaline that helps arrest an attack in case of accidental exposure.
Parker said he wants to move the field away from its current focus on managing symptoms to one that delves into the mechanisms of how the immune system responds during allergic reactions.
At the new institute, which will be led by Kari Nadeau, a researcher at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, an interdisciplinary team will study what happens in people who are successfully desensitized to things they used to be allergic to. Nadeau has been a pioneer in new research that exposes patients with food allergies to small amounts of peanuts, wheat and other allergens orally in a controlled setting.
Nadeau said there are huge gaps in scientists’ basic knowledge about allergies that need to be addressed. For instance, she said, we’re still not sure how much of it is environmental and how much genetic. She said that there’s a molecule in the body that is like a “match that lights the fire behind allergies” that seems to explain why some people may go from being perfectly normal one minute and to not being able to breathe the next, but that needs to be studied further.
Parker and Nadeau said the ultimate goal of the institute, the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research, is to find a “cure” -- a one- or two-time treatment that will make it possible for people with allergies to live normal lives. The dream, Parker said, is that “we can get to a point relatively quickly where nobody’s going to have to go through the things I went through.”
Parker, who made headlines for his partying in his younger years, has become an influential philanthropist and spokesman for research into the body’s immune system over the past few years. His largest donations before this one to Stanford have gone to the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy, which looks at how the body’s immune system can be harnessed to stop cancers. Parker’s foundation has donated $20 million to the cause, including $1 million to New York’s Cancer Research Institute in 2013.