Controversial Billionaire Inspired by Biden to Start Cancer Research Group

January 14, 2016, 7:22 PM UTC
Key Speakers At The 2015 Milken Conference
Patrick Soon-Shiong, founder and chief executive officer of NantHealth, speaks during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, April 27, 2015. The conference brings together hundreds of chief executive officers, senior government officials and leading figures in the global capital markets for discussions on social, political and economic challenges. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

This article has been corrected as of 3:12 p.m. ET.

The first many Americans heard of Joe Biden’s desire for a cancer “moonshot” was when President Obama gave it a shout out in his State of the Union address earlier this week. It was Biden’s inspiration that led to a new, ambitious effort by a controversial cancer pioneer called “Cancer Moonshot 2020” that aims to find new ways to treat cancer and improve survival rates is already underway.

A cross-industry research group made up of pharma giants, biotech startups and academic institutions has formed to help establish the “next generation standard of care” for cancer patients. Called the National Immunotherapy Coalition, the action group formed under the “moonshot” program aims to complete randomized clinical trials with cancer at all stages of the disease in up to 20 tumor types in as many as 20,000 patients by the year 2020 genomic testing, according to Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is the driving force behind the coalition.

“We believed that within your own human body, you have the mechanism to protect yourself,” said Soon-Shiong at the JPMorgan Healthcare conference Wednesday. “The challenge is that we are wiping out our immune systems with chemotherapy, then following up with the standard of care. And there are business and marketing factors at play, the struggle is to change all of that.

“We want to be the cattle prod to make that happen,” he said.

The National Immunotherapy Coalition is bringing together companies like Amgen (AMGN) and Celgene (CELG) as well as a series of smaller biotechs to rapidly test various combinations of drugs. The goal is to find treatments that are less toxic and better use the body’s immune system to fight malignancies. The program will use genomic testing as the basis for matching drugs with each specific cancer and continuing to sequence DNA throughout the treatments to understand how cancers mutate when exposed to various drugs.

The genomic testing will look particularly at resistance to chemotherapy treatments to be able to use the chemo option that best targets that particular tumor, which is not being done on a broad scale today. It’s much like what happens with antibiotics; ach antibiotic is used to treat a particular bacteria and not all work equally well depending on the infection. That’s the level of sophistication researchers and doctors want to reach with chemotherapy, explained Soon-Shiong.

The initiative got its spark after a meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Soon-Shiong when his son, Beau Biden, was seriously ill with brain cancer. The meeting couldn’t cure the younger Biden’s cancer who died last May, but it set off a series of meetings that would form the basis for the moonshot.

Soon-Shiong shared his vision for a new way to approach cancer treatment with the Vice President. The meeting inspired Biden to put his political weight behind the issue in adjacent ways, securing a $264 million funding boost for the National Cancer Institute and getting President Obama on board. Biden is not directly involved in Soon-Shiong’s “Cancer Moonshot 2020.”

Under Soon-Shiong’s leadership, every sector has a role, from the pharma companies that will offer their drugs, to the academic medical centers that will treat patients, to the Food and Drug Administration, which has gotten on board with regulatory approvals, and, finally, to Independence Blue Cross and Bank of America which will help figure out how to pay for a very expensive project.

A full genome sequencing costs around $30,000, and a panel of about 300 genes costs around $9,000. There’s no hard number on how much it will cost, but Independence Blue Cross said it will cover genomic testing and Soon-Shiong has even promised to help cover funding from his own foundation, the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation.

“Patrick is the only individual who could pull together this team,” said Dan Hilferty, president and CEO of Independence Health Group. “The catalyst for this moonshot is really the amazing leadership he’s provided.”

Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and pioneer in the cancer industry who created Abraxane, a multi-million dollar cancer treatment that was sold to Celgene for $2.9 billion. His net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $12.5 billion, and he’s gone on to develop more companies focused on conquering cancer.

However, Soon-Shiong has also been the center of controversies within the cancer industry. He is prone to making large statements and pushing big ideas, which many researchers have said are overblown. John Halamka, the chief information officer for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told Forbes that Soon-Shiong is “a showman of sorts.”

Soon-Shiong is aware of the criticism, pointing out multiple times during the panel at the JPMorgan Healthcare that his comments were likely to rile up the industry. However, he believes that the genome holds the power to transform treatment–and is hoping this initiative will be able to prove that over the next five years.

CORRECTION: Vice President Joe Biden is not directly involved in Soon-Shiong’s “Cancer Moonshot 2020” program. The two had a meeting that led Soon-Shiong to start the initiative. The article previously stated that Biden’s search for a cancer moonshot, as referenced by President Obama, was connected with the new program.

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