Soon-Shiong taps biotech hub for talent, biomedical manufacturing prowess
By Bradley J. Fikes | 3:33 p.m. March 3, 2016
If physician turned billionaire biotech entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong succeeds in his ambitious goal to defeat cancer by 2020, San Diego County’s dynamic biotech industry is likely to play an important role.
San Diego offers talented people and good infrastructure and good quality of life, Soon-Shiong said in a Thursday interview. That makes it an important part of the international hub his organization is building.
And, says the Los Angeles resident, San Diego’s famously salubrious weather and high quality of living also factor into the equation.
Soon-Shiong’s vision of treating cancer amounts to an extraordinary complex interweaving of immunology, virology, “big data” and other disciplines, akin to playing three-dimensional chess.
If he is right, that adaptable approach may finally give doctors the tools to control cancer across the board, instead of fighting for piecemeal victories in narrow segments of the vast sets of genomic derangments we call cancer.
Soon-Shiong outlined that vision at this week’s ninth annual Future of Genomic Medicine in La Jolla. It was his second visit to the area in a week. Last week he laid out his plans at the Global Life Science Partnering conference of Biocom, the San Diego-based biomedical trade group.
In an interview after his talk, Soon-Shiong discussed the role of San Diego in achieving that goal. While Los Angeles is the corporate headquarters of his network of companies, the presence extends to Boston, Phoenix and Frankfurt, Germany, along with San Diego.
San Diego’s proximity to Los Angeles makes it especially significant, he said.
Soon-Shiong has formed partnerships with San Diego companies to develop his cancer immune therapy products. One of his companies, Los Angeles-based NantKwest, is opening a manufacturing facility in Torrey Pines Mesa. The plant will produce immune cells for the company’s cancer immunotherapy product.
“We’re very excited about being in San Diego, because the talents, the skill sets around are fabulous,” he said. “There’s the biotech hub, UCSD and the other (academic) institutions.”
The Torrey Pines branch of NantKwest will make genetically engineered white blood cells called “natural killer cells”. These cells are among the first to attack virus-infected cells. Unlike other cell-killers, they don’t have to be primed to recognize an enemy.
“The manufacturing facility we acquired was ideal,” he said. That facility will employ on the order of 50 to 100 people, he said. A small office in the Encinitas community of Cardiff will be closed and employees shifted to Torrey Pines, he said.
Publicly traded NantKwest held an initial public offering in July at $25 per share. The stock soared past $38, but then slumped, something that has happened across the biotech sector. On Thursday, shares closed at $7.60.
Soon-Shiong said he was inspired by the cancer immunotherapy projects of CancerVax, a defunct company in Carlsbad that was originally located in Los Angeles.
CancerVax’s scientific founder, the late Dr. Donald Morton of UC Los Angeles, was his mentor. He is applying lessons learned by CancerVax in his work.
“I trained under him,” Soon-Shiong said. “He was chairman of surgery and I was a young surgical resident.”
Morton developed a melanoma vaccine that showed early promise in inducing long-term remissions, Soon-Shiong said. But the vaccine ultimately failed clinical trials because it was found to be no better than a control treatment.
Unknown to Morton, the control treatment also turned out to be an immunotherapy, not a true placebo, Soon-Shiong said.
Treat the patient, not the cancer
Since that failure, cancer immunotherapy has come a long way, with regular reports of spectacular remissions in patients whose cancers had resisted all other treatments.
In his talk, Shiong said previous efforts to cure cancer have fallen short because they focused on killing cancer cells. Instead, the effort should be on treating the patients so they can repel the cancer. In his vision, cancer patients will get periodic treatments, like a flu shot, and go on with their daily lives.
Killing cancer cells is like a game of “whackamole,” he said, because of the diversity of cancers.
“The true way to attack cancer is not to attack the cancer,” Soon-Shiong said in his talk. “You are the cancer. You need to treat the host.”
The “magic bullet” approach to cancer fails because cancer cells mutate so readily. But cancer cells arise constantly in healthy people, whose immune system kills them just as rapidly. By improving the immune system of patients, cancer may eventually be treated like the flu, with a kind of vaccination to keep it in check.
This is a hypothesis, Soon-Shiong said. By 2020, enough evidence should be there to know whether the hypothesis is correct.
How will that be determined?
“When you long-term remissions without high-dose chemotherapy, and a high quality of life,” he said.