The billionaire scientist Patrick Soon-Shiong came to San Diego yesterday to lay out his plans for a “Cancer MoonShot 2020.”
Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and serial life sciences entrepreneur, has emerged in recent weeks as the driving force behind an ambitious quest to create a next-generation cancer immunotherapy platform over the next four years. To support the effort, Soon-Shiong helped bring together scientific leaders from Celgene, Amgen, Altor Bioscience, and other companies, major academic cancer centers, and thousands of oncologists to form the National Immunotherapy Coalition.
In a mesmerizing presentation at a biotech-pharmaceutical conference hosted by Biocom, a nonprofit industry group, Soon-Shiong said he had spent hours explaining his vision to Vice President Joe Biden, who first called in October for a “moon shot” effort to cure cancer. Biden’s son Beau died from brain cancer last May, and the vice president has made the disease a personal mission for his remaining time in the Obama administration.
The vision Soon-Shiong described in San Diego takes a comprehensive, system-of-systems approach. To conquer cancer, he wants to integrate a host of molecular diagnostic tests with real-time bioinformatics, electronic medical records, analytics, machine learning, predictive modeling, clinical trials, and patient care, to develop a unique immunotherapy treatment for each individual cancer patient.
Afterward, Biocom CEO Joe Panetta said, “In the 17 years I’ve been at Biocom, this has been the most impactful talk I’ve ever heard.”
Later, in a brief interview with Xconomy, Soon-Shiong said, “The immune system is a very complex orchestration of different cell types, some in balance, some out of balance. In cancer, they are generally out of balance, because that’s what the cancer cell does to them. It creates what we call immune suppression, so to speak. [Cancer] actually hides from the immune system. So the idea is to figure out what it’s doing and then counter-attack it.”
As Soon-Shiong put it, every tumor is unique to each individual. “It is the human genome gone haywire,” he said.
So one essential challenge of Cancer MoonShot 2020 is developing the capability to understand precisely how each patient’s cancer is different, by identifying the antigenic signatures encoded by the mutations of individual tumors. These signatures, or neo-epitopes, are unique to each cancer. (Soon-Shiong said one reason modern science has not won the war on cancer is assuming that cancer proliferates from a single mutated cell, or clone. “Cancer is not a single clone,” he said. “There are multiple neo-epitopes, multiple micro-metastases.”)
Once those unique signatures have been determined for each patient, Soon-Shiong said the goal is to develop a “vaccine-based immunotherapy” that primes natural killer cells to target a particular signature and destroy those cancer cells. He proposes to use combinations of other immuno-therapies, and even conventional cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiation as well.
The idea is to treat cancer as a chronic, infectious disease in a war that never ends. Patients with cancer would be treated under a MoonShot program known as Quantitative Integrative Lifelong Trial, or QUILT. That means “the war on cancer has come down to hand-to-hand combat,” Soon-Shiong said.
“Because it is hard, and because it is big and difficult is exactly why I am excited about it,” Soon-Shiong said. “The fact that it is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
After founding and selling two pharmaceutical companies in Los Angeles—APP Pharmaceuticals for $3.7 billion in 2008, and Abraxis BioScience for $3 billion in 2010—Soon-Shiong already has taken some steps to realize his cancer vision through a group of companies he has been creating.
He founded Culver City, CA-based NantHealth in 2007 to share healthcare information, using a fiber-optic, cloud-based infrastructure. In 2011, he founded NantWorks to add supercomputing, advanced networking, and machine intelligence capabilities to what he described yesterday as “a real-time bioinformatics database in the HIPAA cloud,” (a reference to the federal standard for protecting personal health information.) In 2012, Soon-Shiong said NantHealth’s supercomputer-based system and network were able to analyze the genetic data from a tumor sample in 47 seconds, and transfer the data in 18 seconds.
In 2014, Soon-Shiong acquired a major stake in ConkWest, a specialized San Diego biotech with a proprietary line of natural killer cells called Neukoplast. Last year, Soon-Shiong renamed the company NantKwest and oversaw a $2.6 billion initial public offering in July that ranks as the highest-value biotech IPO in history.
Perhaps based on that success, Soon-Shiong told the San Diego audience, “We’ll probably take NantHealth public this year—if the market behaves.”