Cancer Researcher-Turned-Billionaire Starts New CompanyMeg Tirrell
Patrick Soon-Shiong, the physician who founded and sold two drug companies to become Los Angeles’s wealthiest resident, is starting a new company with the goal of changing the way cancer is attacked.
Called NantOmics, the company will build on the knowledge Soon-Shiong, 60, said he gained from Abraxane, the cancer treatment he developed and sold to Celgene Corp. in 2010 for $2.9 billion. The medicine wraps a chemotherapy in a human protein called albumin that aims to more efficiently ferry cancer-killing agents to their target.
Celgene reported last week that the drug helped patients with advanced pancreatic cancer live a median 1.8 months longer than a standard treatment, a benefit for people battling one of the deadliest cancers. Soon-Shiong said he wants to extend that benefit by combining new diagnostic technologies and therapeutic strategies to improve care.
“It took 23 years from Abraxane being conceived to us showing now with conclusiveness that it works in pancreatic cancer,” Soon-Shiong said by telephone. “We cannot afford as a society to wait another 23 years to make sure that the patients get the right care, at the right time, at the right place.”
Since selling his company, Abraxis BioScience, to Summit, New Jersey-based Celgene in 2010, Soon-Shiong has branched into other endeavors. He bought a stake in the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers from star player Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and is pursuing the purchase of Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Soon-Shiong was listed in May 2012 as the wealthiest Los Angeles resident by the Los Angeles Business Journal, topping businessman Eli Broad and director Steven Spielberg. Soon-Shiong has a net worth of $7.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Soon-Shiong’s latest move returns him to his roots in medicine. NantOmics, funded primarily by Soon-Shiong’s California Capital Equity fund, seeks to develop medicines called kinase inhibitors that target multiple proteins to combat cancer in combination with Abraxane and other drugs.
The strategy addresses the ideas that cancer spreads in reaction to attempts to kill it, and that it can mutate several times from when it first appears.
“What we discovered, counter-intuitively, is that when you start killing a cancer cell, one of the things it does in order to survive is to spread even further,” Soon-Shiong said. “It causes itself to form new blood vessels. We’ve termed this reactionary angiogenesis.”
To combat that effect, Soon-Shiong and colleagues have tried combining Abraxane and chemotherapies with Roche Holding AG’s Avastin, an anti-angiogenesis drug that tries to block the new blood vessels formed by tumors to feed themselves. The combination is designed to feed the tumor poison, starve it of its blood supply and prevent its spread.
They have treated 40 pancreatic cancer patients with the regimen, which combines 5-FU, or fluorouracil, a chemotherapy; cancer drugs leucovorin and oxaliplatin; Abraxane; and Avastin, Soon-Shiong said. An analysis of those cases showed 87 percent were alive at 12 months, with a median overall survival of 18 months, he said.
Forty patients is a small sample, and Soon-Shiong said it’s important the theory be proved in larger studies across multiple sites run by multiple oncology organizations.
NantOmics will join another of Soon-Shiong’s companies, called NantHealth, under the umbrella of a larger organization called NantWorks that brings together supercomputing, semiconductor technology, and advancements in voice and object recognition. The “Nant” name has its roots in Native American culture, in which “Nantan” means “he who speaks for the people,” Soon-Shiong said.
The health firms will be “next-generation pharma companies” that use NantWorks technology to better track and profile patients’ cancer and develop new treatments, he said.
Soon-Shiong’s goal is to bring multiple new therapies into human testing this year and next year, based on concepts he has observed since developing Abraxane in the 1990s, he said.
“We realized that by driving more drug into the innards of the tumor, you would be able to kill the tumor faster than anybody could,” said Soon-Shiong, who was on the faculty of the University of California Los Angeles’s Medical School from 1983 until he left to pursue drug development. “If this was true, this would work for breast cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, bladder cancer, cervical cancer. That’s what we set out to prove.”
Abraxane is now approved for non small-cell lung cancer in addition to breast cancer, and Celgene said it plans to apply for approval in pancreatic cancer this year. The drug also is being tested in metastatic melanoma and other cancers.
Abraxane may become a blockbuster for Celgene, drawing $1.7 billion in peak worldwide sales, estimated Robyn Karnauskas, an analyst with Deutsche Bank. It drew $427 million in 2012 revenue.
Celgene’s shares jumped 5.8 percent on Nov. 12 after the company reported that its pancreatic cancer trial had met study goals. The stock declined less than 1 percent to $98.95 at the close in New York. The shares have gained 35 percent in the last 12 months.
In advanced pancreatic cancer, Celgene tested Abraxane on top of the chemotherapy gemcitabine, and showed last week that the combination helped patients live a median of 8.5 months, compared with 6.7 months for gemcitabine alone.
In the 861-person trial, 35 percent of patients taking Abraxane plus gemcitabine lived to one year, compared with 22 percent on gemcitabine alone.
One patient treated with the Abraxane, Avastin and chemotherapy regimen is in remission more than six years after her diagnosis, beating the odds of the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.
Diane Ronnau, a Los Angeles-based producer for the CBS Evening News, was a 44-year-old mother of two when her doctor found a mass on her pancreas. She had a complicated surgery and started chemotherapy, only for the cancer to return on her liver just more than a year later.
“It was the most frightening diagnosis ever,” Ronnau said of being told she had pancreatic cancer. “I thought that I would not make it to see my children have their 10th birthday. You immediately start thinking, ’How much longer do I have?’”
When her cancer returned, Ronnau’s doctor added Abraxane to her regimen. After about six weeks, Ronnau said she saw signs of improvement. She continued the therapy for another three years, stopping last June before her 51st birthday.
Her doctors now see no evidence of cancer. While the drug took a toll on her white blood cell count, forcing her to take another medicine, she said she is now back to normal.
Soon-Shiong said his company will aim to apply the principles that may have helped Ronnau and add another strategy: addressing cancer’s polyclonality, or its tendency to harbor multiple mutations simultaneously. He plans to use NantWorks’ technology to screen patients’ genomes to understand what form their cancer has taken, and develop multi-targeted kinase inhibitors to attack it.
The therapies will be targeted toward a cancer’s underlying pathway rather than where it arises in the body, Soon-Shiong said, noting a breast cancer patient may benefit from a drug used in colon cancer, for example.
NantOmics has a library of kinase inhibitors to draw from that Soon-Shiong bought back from Celgene when he sold Abraxis, he said. The unit, called Abraxis Health, formed the basis of NantOmics and NantHealth.
Those companies may pursue initial public offerings “when the technology is ready,” Soon-Shiong said.
“We’re really going after truly creating sustainability of a disease-free state,” Soon-Shiong said, “creating a complete system for managing cancer patients for life, so that you can manage from onset of disease all the way through.”