Sean Parker gives $24 million to Stanford for allergy research

In his latest philanthropic endeavor, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker is giving $24 million of his own money to prop up an allergy research center at Stanford University.

Parker, best known perhaps as founding president of Facebook and founder of Napster, the file-sharing service and music piracy site that was shut down, announced the donation early Wednesday. The gift is one of the largest private donations to allergy research in the U.S. to date, and will go toward equipment, the salaries of top-notch scientists and research aimed at uncovering more effective treatments for deadly allergies

Parker said he has dealt with allergies since he was a child, including allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish, which has landed him in the emergency room several times.

“This is a problem that has plagued me since I was small,” Parker said in an interview Tuesday with the Mercury News. “It’s something I’ve had to deal with my entire life. It’s something I’ve had to watch my parents deal with.

“Personally, my allergies are so severe that I’ve been hospitalized; I think my wife claims it’s been 14 times since we’ve been dating and now married,” Parker said. “So it’s a kind of thing that really dramatically affects your life.”

Parker — who was recently blasted for not seeking proper permits for his lavish outdoor wedding in Big Sur last year — will hold a position on the scientific advisory board for the newly established Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University, which also bares Parker’s name. There, research will be led by Kari Nadeau, an immunology expert at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and the Stanford School of Medicine. Nadeau, with teams of immunology researchers around the globe, will be studying the immune system to discern why certain people have allergies and others don’t, and how people with allergies are able to overcome them. So much of the treatment now is aimed at stopping a reaction — not solving the underlying issues in a person’s immune system that causes an allergy.

We need to find something “more than just taking another antihistamine or another steroid, which have awful side effects,” Nadeau said.

Currently, it takes patients an average of three to five years of shots, medications and other treatment to become desensitized  — or to lose their allergies. Nadeau said, in recent trials, she has helped people become allergy-free in four to six months. In her work at the center, she hopes to reduce that to two weeks and perhaps even two days.

“You’d like to be able to with one or two treatments induce a permanent desensitization,” she said. “It does feel like it’s an achievable goal.”

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of people worldwide will have an allergy at some point in their life, according to researchers. While many people think of allergies as a nuisance — a runny nose in the spring when flowers are in bloom — many can be fatal. About one in 12 children under the age of 21 and one in 50 adults have a food allergy — and that number is rising, Nadeau said. Of those individuals with a food allergy, 25 percent will have a near-fatal anaphylactic reaction at some point in their lives. All of those emergency-room visits, and the many days off from work spent in a hospital or caring for a sick child, add up to a cost of $25 billion each year.

Parker said his longest and scariest ER visit came a few years ago, after he took his girlfriend and now-wife out to dinner in New York. Despite many assurances that his dinner was nut-free, Parker suspects he ate peanut sauce that almost killed him.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘’This is amazing. I’ve never tasted anything like this,'” he said. “And 45 minutes later I was in the ER at New York-Presbyterian with a near-fatal reaction.”

Through his foundation, Parker has also donated to cancer research and other areas of immunology.

Photo: Sean Parker, pictured at the 2012 SXSW Music Festival


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