PATRICK SOON-SHIONG KNOWS when he realized that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to pose a serious threat. It was February 24, 2020, and the part-owner of the L.A. Lakers was at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service.
With sudden, untimely demise on his mind, he found himself thinking about the emerging pandemic.
Even though Covid-19 hadn’t yet caused a single reported death in the United States, Soon-Shiong was worried. He recalls turning around to California Governor Gavin Newsom and telling him, “We’re in trouble.”
His sense of urgency hasn’t gone away. “If I thought I was scared on February 24,” he says, “I’m more scared now.” The reason, he explains, is that “what we’ve learned is that this virus acts like cancer.” He says he has left his house only once since Bryant’s memorial, and that was to film a video about the coronavirus for the Los Angeles Times, which he bought, along with The San Diego Union-Tribune, for $600 million two years ago. “I shut myself off from the world,” he says.
And so one of the planet’s richest medical doctors, who made a $6.7 billion fortune developing breakthrough treatments for cancer and diabetes, seeks to battle the pandemic. The weapons in his arsenal: the cancer treatments he has spent the past decade and a half developing. He’s aiming them at all aspects of the coronavirus, from a vaccine to treatments for mild cases to therapies targeted toward patients on ventilators.
It’s an enormously ambitious plan from a man who has often been accused of being a hype artist.
In an earlier incarnation, Soon-Shiong was a respected surgeon and professor at UCLA Medical School, but throughout his wildly successful entrepreneurial second act, he has been derided as more showman than scientist, thought guilty of overinflating results and taking undue credit. A few years ago, for example, he boasted about using a breast cancer drug to treat a patient with cervical cancer —but other groups were already seeing similar successes. As we wrote in a 2014 cover story, “While he’s undeniably brilliant, Soon-Shiong is equally undeniably a blowhard.”
But he also has fierce defenders of his approach to both cancer and Covid-19, including former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who says the 68-year-old South Africa-born doctor “saved my life” in 2019 by providing an experimental treatment for his stage IV pancreatic cancer. Researchers say his methods are conceptually grounded in good science, though the verdict on his work will ultimately depend on results.
“We’ve been tracking and seeing an increase in the number of these cell-based therapies, whether they’re being repurposed from oncology or even other disease conditions,” says Esther Krofah, a senior analyst who monitors the clinical development pipeline for Covid-19 vaccines and therapies for the Milken Institute. A number of them — from large pharmaceuticals and small biotech startups alike — are going into clinical trials. For many of the latter, the pandemic offers a chance to show what their treatments can do in a shorter time frame than cancer drugs typically require. “For small companies, it’s a worthwhile exercise to see if it’s successful,” Krofah says.
It may seem counterintuitive, but advances in knowledge about the immune system, and how it might help kill cancer, have real applications for infectious diseases. “To me, a cancer cell and a virus-infected cell are one and the same,” says Dr. Wayne Marasco, an immunologist at Harvard Medical School who is currently researching coronavirus treatments. The immune system, he adds, seems to think the same way.
Which is a good reason to take Patrick Soon-Shiong seriously.
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1952, Soon-Shiong is no stranger to the intersection of the immune system, cancer and infectious disease. Having graduated from medical school at age 22, he focused his early surgical career on transplants and cancer, both of which involve a complex pas de deux with the immune system.
Crossing disciplines, he says, led him to look at the “body as a system, not a single little cell. We are a biological system.”
Such interdisciplinary thinking may be what led to the medicine that made his fortune: Abraxane, which took an existing chemotherapy drug, Toxol, but wrapped it in protein that made it easier to deliver to tumors. It’s now used to treat advanced cases of lung, breast and pancreatic cancer. In 1998, to develop Abraxane, he purchased Fujisawa, a small, publicly-traded business that sold injectable generic drugs.
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