Tom Hanks on Sean Parker's Cancer Initiative: "He's Bringing a Level of Common Sense You Thought Already Existed But Didn't"

The tech billionaire hosted an A-list gala on the grounds outside his home to celebrate the launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.
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Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson

Joined by wife Rita Wilson at his side, Tom Hanks stood in front of five journalists, including this one, on the red carpet outside of Sean Parker's Bel-Air home and put forth one easy, if not emotional, request. 

"Raise your hand if you know somebody who had cancer," Hanks asked.

Everyone present raised a hand, including him and especially Wilson, who revealed exactly one year ago that she had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction for breast cancer after being diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma. "Sometimes it's people you just met, other times it's the love of your life," Hanks said, looking at his wife of nearly 30 years. 

It's the devastation of cancer in all its forms that brought the couple to Parker's launch party celebrating the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, announced earlier in the day. That news revealed that the tech billionaire — best known as the brains behind Napster and as the first president of Facebook — invested $250 million in an effort to bring together scientists and doctors from six top academic cancer centers and break down the bureaucracy many believe has stalled progress in treating and potential finding a cure for many deadly forms of cancer.

Those centers that have pulled together to collaborate with Parker's initiative are: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Stanford Medicine; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Francisco; University of Pennsylvania; and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. 

Many high-ranking officials from those institutions were in attendance on Wednesday night at the gala, organized on the grounds outside of Parker's home, an architectural jewel known as the Brody House and once owned by Ellen DeGeneres. The invite list was certainly diverse with physicians mingling with the likes of Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Jimmy Iovine, CAA's Richard Lovett, Katy Perry, Katie Couric, Lenny Kravitz, magician David Blaine, Princess Beatrice of York, filmmaker Peter Jackson, Goldie Hawn and late-night host James Corden. 

Guests listened to presentations as well as performances from Lady Gaga, John Legend and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (including guitarist Flea, fresh from Staples Center where he handled the National Anthem for Kobe Bryan's final game in a jersey with the Los Angeles Lakers.) Hanks served as night's emcee.

Despite the star power in the room, all eyes were on 36-year-old Parker. Joined by wife, Alexandra, the entrepreneur was one of the last guests to walk the carpet and he stopped to talk with every outlet to get the word out about his mission. And if the initiative sounds a bit disruptive, it is, and that's something Parker is familiar with as it really is a through line of his career. From Napster to his current Screening Room project, he has proven that he's not afraid to break down models while introducing new ways of doing business. 

"It needed to happen," Parker told The Hollywood Reporter, specifically talking about the collaboration his initiative supports. "We needed to get scientists working together towards this common problem. It just wasn't happening on its own. We needed to find a way to remove all the barriers and remove all the obstacles that were preventing progress from happening faster. 

He continued by expressing how frustrating it was for him to witness "so much money going to cancer research" but not be allocated to "next generation therapies. It wasn't going to immunotherapy."

Memorial Sloan Kettering's Dr. Jedd Wolchok attended the gala and said he's grateful to Parker for recognizing that shortage. "Sean has made a tremendous commitment to the disruptive technology of immunotherapy and the disruptive technology of cancer medicine in general," he explained. "It's a grand experiment that I'm quite confident will pay off."

Sean Parker takes the stage during the launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, held under a tent on the side of his home in Los Angeles on April 13, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Parker Media)

He added that the experiment is part of a larger plan to increase funding back into the network that Parker has created. "The biggest challenge is whether the knowledge gained can be marketed or licensed to form other companies or be sold to biotech companies to bring funding back into the network. That is what Sean is envisioning. It's a great idea."

Peter Jackson, one of the first filmmakers to speak out in support of Parker's controversial Screening Room, is already sold on what he's doing to find cancer as well. The helmer flew in from New Zealand just for the PICI event and said: "What Sean will be able to do with this is cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy that these [doctors and scientists] have to go through, spending one third of their time writing out applications for funding. These are the scientists and doctors who should be trying to figure out how to cure cancer and a third of their time is spent filling out forms for funding."

What Parker is doing may seem like "common sense," Hanks detailed, but it wasn't being put in practice. "I'm glad he's disrupted things," said Hanks, who also cracked a joke about Parker with the quip, "I have all his records and I love when he was with *NSync," connecting the dots to former boy-bander Justin Timberlake who played the part of Parker in the Facebook-inspired The Social Network. 

"The common understanding is that anyone who works on cancer is going to share all their research and help each other out, and it's the opposite of that because it's intellectual property," continued Hanks. "He's bringing a level of common sense that you thought had already existed but didn't."

He's also bringing cash. "He could be doing anything with his money right now and instead, as a young man, he is choosing to do the thing called curing cancer by thinking outside the box," complimented Wilson. "I have to thank him so much. He's going to make changes in people's lives."

Lady Gaga performs onstage at the launch of Sean Parker's Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at his home in Los Angeles on April 13, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Parker Media)

Change that is only just starting, Parker noted.

"(The launch) is the culmination of three years of work and negotiating with centers to get them on board and its incredibly gratifying but in some ways the work begins tonight," he said. "Hopefully 20 years from now we will look back and cancer isn't going to be this scary thing. It's not going to be a death sentence. We need to still get immunotherapy working against these common epithelial cancers, like pancreatic and colorectal cancer. We're not there yet. But hopefully we will be there."

How to get there? Parker finished his red carpet walk with this: "We gotta keep everyone hungry. Keep scientists hungry; continue pushing. We can't just be doing science for the sake of doing science. We have to keep patients in mind all the time."

So the next time someone like Hanks asks those in his presence if they know a patient who has cancer, Parker will be there, not only with his hand in the air but his head and wallet in the fight. 

Sean Parker, wife Alexandra Parker and Katy Perry catch up at the launch of Sean Parker's Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at his home in Los Angeles on April 13, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Parker Media)

Flea and Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers perform onstage at the launch of Sean Parker's Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at his home in Los Angeles on April 13, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Parker Media)

Sean Penn and Minka Kelly share a table at the launch of Sean Parker's Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at his home in Los Angeles on April 13, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Parker Media)