Critics Underwhelmed by Patrick Soon-Shiong's 'Cancer Moonshot' Progress So Far

Cancer Cells

Patrick Soon-Shiong, once dubbed the world’s richest doctor, reported on the so-called Cancer Moonshot at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, and it has critics underwhelmed.

In 2016, Soon-Shiong announced the Cancer Moonshot and set a 2020 deadline, claiming he would transform the war on cancer. He announced plans to enroll 20,000 cancer patients in clinical trials and engineer a vaccine for the disease. Eleven biopharma companies and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) combined on a five-year $215 million public-private research collaboration dubbed PAC—the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies.

The first signs of anything going on were just released. NantKwest, one of Soon-Shiong’s companies, announced results from its Phase I trial of its off-the-shelf, PD-L1 tumor-targeted NK cells. NantKwest and ImmunityBio also reported on a compassionate use expanded access Investigational New Drug (IND) combining the PD-L1-targeted NK cell with ImmunityBio’s IL-15 fusion protein (N-803) in a single patient with metastatic pancreatic cancer. That patient had relapsed after previous standard-of-care treatment.

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“We hypothesize that a common treatment protocol that harnesses both the natural-killer cell and the T-cells could be effective in treating cancer across multiple tumor types,” Soon-Shiong said in a statement.

He went on to say, “This has been supported by the early signals of safety and efficacy in Phase I and II studies of NantKwest’s natural killer cells in advanced cancers. We recently reported at the 2019 Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer conference (SITC) complete responses in third-line Merkel cell carcinoma and fourth-line head and neck cancers when haNKk CD-16 NK cells combined with Pfizer’s PD-L1 antibody, Avelumab, and with ImmunityBio’s N-803, an IL-15 superagonist were administered.”

In addition, he reported complete responses with the combination therapies that included haNK, Avelumab and N-803 in triple negative breast cancer. Durable complete responses were seen in patients who had not responded to standard therapy for breast cancer. They presented the data at the 2019 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) in December 2019.

It's really the first news coming out about the Moonshot. STAT notes that the initiative’s website went dark in the spring and its social media accounts haven’t been active in almost three years.

David Agus, an oncologist at the University of Southern California who is the director of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, told STAT, he hadn’t heard a thing, literally, about the results, since the Moonshot was launched. “Every time someone offers [cancer patients] hope, and that hope isn’t realized, it’s almost a slap in the face. And so when you’ve got someone like Patrick Soon-Shiong who sets out this aggressive agenda, and basically is promising hope, and then the cancer research community doesn’t hear anything at all, that’s really difficult. Cancer patients live by that hope.”

Soon-Shiong, 67, made a splashy entrance as a transplant surgeon. His fortune came from inventing the pancreatic cancer drug Abraxane. His wealth is estimated to be about $9.16 billion. He is also rather well known for making bold promises, such as the Cancer Moonshot and, back in the early 1990s, suggesting he had cured diabetes by implanting insulin-secreting cell into a patient. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

He runs several biotech companies under the NantWorks umbrella, with the most successful being NantHealth, which markets software and cancer diagnostic tests. NantKwest is the focus of today’s announcement, and ImmunityBio, which was previously called NantCell and is working to develop a cancer vaccine.

In 2018, he acquired the Los Angeles Times, and has earned praise for revitalizing the newspaper. However, his medical companies, including the Cancer Moonshot, haven’t been breaking much ground, and a STAT investigation in 2017 found the Moonshot seemed to be functioning mostly as a marketing tool for NantHealth’s GPS Cancer test.

Perhaps, as is often the case, the real work of curing cancer is slow and incremental. Soon-Shiong’s efforts can certainly be a part of that, but so far, there’s been a lot of sizzle without a lot of results.

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