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Internet Billionaire Sean Parker Behind First CRISPR Test by Mickael Marsali

MIT Technology Review had some interesting news to break today: the first proposed test of CRISPR gene-editing technology in human beings is being funded by none other than Internet billionaire Sean Parker, the well-known cofounder behind Napster and first president of Facebook.

Last week it was announced that doctors at the University of Pennsylvania were seeking approval to test the technology in the fight against cancer. The request will be reviewed next week by a federal advisory panel in Washington, D.C. If approved, it would be the first clinical trial of CRISPR in the US.

At just 36-years old, Parker has a net worth estimated at $2.4 billion. Although his resume is more attuned to file sharing and social media, Parker believes our understanding of computers and biotech aren’t so different. He has stated that he thinks of T cells as “little computers” that just need the right reprogramming.

This also isn’t his first foray into cancer research. Back in April, he gave $250 million in funding to six centers, including one at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sean Parker

Sean Parker

The trial will test using gene-editing to modify immune system T cells to attack three types of cancer: myeloma, melanoma, and sarcoma.

T cell treatments have already seen dramatic success against leukemia, but this new treatment developed at Penn aims to make the therapy more effective at targeting these other cancers.

Penn filed a patent on the idea last October, according to European patent records.

The trial will include up to 15 patients at three sites: Penn, the University of California, San Francisco, and the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Successful treatment involves a complex process of removing a cancer patient’s T cells, altering the DNA, and then re-infusing them a month later at which point the altered DNA instructs the cells to zero in on and destroy tumors.

Due to complex safety issues, such as whether the genetic alterations will be accurate enough, mean there is no guarantee the trial will go forward.

Parker’s foundation is taking a unique approach to its investment in that it will control the patents on the research it funds. Eventually, they even plan to bring treatments to market.

Parker compares this tactic to the methodologies that made the popular music-sharing service Spotify, of which Parker is also an investor in, possible.

In May, Parker asked, “What if we had a system where all the [intellectual property] could be shared among the scientists?” to Dateline NBC.