Changing how Discoveries are Made

Science is built upon discoveries and gathering evidence to support theories. Individual researchers publish results based on their data and then others use this information to guide their own research. The process works, but how efficiently? Does this methodology truly reflect the potential of the 21st century?

Today everyone is connected, whether it is through your cell phone, or browsing Facebook, you are connected and have instantaneous access to news around the world. The answer to more scientific breakthroughs and more conclusive results may be at the tips of our fingers, by bridging the knowledge gaps between today’s greatest innovators.

This novel way of thinking is exactly what Sean Parker has been focused on since June of 2015 when he co-founded the Parker Foundation. As a tech mogul famous for being the first investor and president of Facebook, co-founding Napster and serving on the board of Spotify,  Parker has now taken to large scale philanthropy and he is certainly fit for such aspirations.

A Portrait of Sean Parker  - Sean Parker Foundation

A Portrait of Sean Parker - Sean Parker Foundation

The Parker Foundation embodies Parker’s altruistic interests by addressing societal issues in life sciences, global health and civic engagement. In one short year, the Parker Foundation has gone global and was ranked 5th on the Chronicle of Philanthropy top 50 list. Most interestingly, his life science branch of the Parker Foundation, named the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy has been bringing both Physicians and PhDs together in order to bring new methods of treating cancer to trial and into our pharmacies faster than ever before. He has been able to unite over 40 laboratories and more than 300 researchers from countries leading the way in cancer research. By doing this, he has been able to bring all the great minds together, to battle one of the leading causes of death in the world. This thinking has been able to push for more group efforts in science to combat cancer and decrease the tragic fatalities that are befalling many citizens around the world today.

A new approach to the current framework


Amid the tech era, with innovation exploding onto the scene every day, it may be hard to believe that Mr. Parker was the first individual to take on the task of uniting researchers to accelerate discovery; this is because he wasn’t… not exactly.  “Big Data”, a term referring to large collections of data generated by individual researchers available for others to incorporate into their own studies, was first described by NASA in 1998. Since the early 2000s, researchers have been conducting their own experiments with data produced from different sources - a concept like the objective of the Parker Institute, which was to integrate knowledge from different research labs. On the contrary, Big Data faces many challenges that the Parker Foundation was able to avoid.

Big Data, in the traditional sense, often comes with many difficulties. These difficulties are often caused by legislation regarding the use of private information in health records for health-related studies. Legislation against the use of private information in the health records often causes significant delays due to agreements between the many different groups, before the data can be accessed.  Once these agreements have been made, further difficulties often arise when it comes time to publish material in a scientific format. Big Data can cause disputes between ownership of the intellectual property being produced, which can further delay all research that is making use of the data.

In addition to the legalities surrounding Big Data, another pressing issue lies in the fact that all the data is generated is obtained from independent sources that do not necessarily follow the same procedures. The different research paradigms result in what is known as “noisy data”, harbouring numerous inconsistencies that even some the most powerful statistical algorithms struggle to account for. Although the Parker Foundation seeks to compile research from different labs, the process is not blinded as with Big Data, meaning that the researchers themselves are connected with each other, rather than just with the numbers. In doing this Parker has revolutionized the idea of Big Data, opening the door to more impactful discovery than ever before.

Perhaps the strongest sign of potential yet


Just this year, Fred Ramsdell, head of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, was a recipient of the 2017 Crafoord Prize. Specifically, he has been recognized for forming a direct correlation between the IPEX gene and the formation of T cells. The IPEX gene is responsible for a severe autoimmune disease. Understanding it has paved the way for promising solutions to cancer variants.  If having hundreds of equally qualified researchers working on the same theory does not shout potential, then you are right to hold your own opinion. But, don’t forget to consider the 30+ external connections Parker has made to other academic and industrial organizations. This is what sets the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy apart from other Cancer research facilities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and University of California are only a few of the many associates to the Parker Institute. Due to their high patient capacity, the efficiency by which scientific methods move to clinical trials and then to active bedside treatment is moving at a surprising rate. For example, models such as developing next generation T cells, and the identification of new tumor-specific markers are already under clinical trials since the creation of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in April of 2016, which is promising, nevertheless expected, progress.

Sean Parker is an example of what we can do as a society to change how scientific discoveries are made to speed up and work together on a global scale to find solutions to some of the most complex and difficult problems that we face today. Perhaps with an effort to create coalitions like this focusing on other problems, such as poverty, or even climate change, we may be able to make more movement towards a better future for our shared humanity.

**Disclaimer: Due to the nature of this article, it has not been peer-reviewed.

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Andrew Ward

Andrew is an alumnus of the ASRJ Executive Team. He Co-founded the ASRJ alongside Chair, Jeremy Slayter, while studying Biology at the University of New Brunswick. Andrew has a passion for the biomedical sciences as well as the social determinants and ethical principles of health, which has led him to his current studies in Medicine at the University of Toronto. In his spare time, Andrew enjoys cycling and all things coffee related!


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Christopher Lee

Chris is working towards a Major in Biology and Minor in Mathematics. His deepest interests lie in understanding mechanisms at the smallest scale, which are leading him to pursue a MSc followed by a PhD. in Genetic Analysis. In his eyes, knowledge is the most powerful weapon on earth, and believes that the ASRJ is the best medium to empower younger students. You can find him hiking outdoors, and listening to the greatest of musicals.


Fan, J., Han, F., & Liu, H. (2014). Challenges of big data analysis. National science review, 1(2), 293-314.

The Parker Foundation


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