"Simply put, Soon-Shiong believes we are on the cusp of a transformative moment in medicine. He is convinced that by leveraging all the cool stuff that's happening right now in mobile technology, supercomputing, machine vision, artificial intelligence, cloud storage, mega-high-speed data transmission, genomics, and proteomics, medicine will emerge at long last from the Dark Ages."Huffington Post:
In a secure warren of office suites on the west side of Los Angeles, the surgeon-turned-drug-magnate-turned-entrepreneur has laid out his health care vision in a series of floor-to-ceiling flowcharts.
The proprietary charts, and the money and medical experience behind them, are the road map that Soon-Shiong has refined over a decade on his way to courtside Lakers seats and a net worth of $7 billion from the drug companies and patents he’s sold.
Known in-house as “The Rocket Ship,” the mostly privately funded project aims to link supercomputers, super-fast data networks; personal monitoring devices; wired hospitals, clinics and phones; nanotechnology; and genome and molecular “proteomic” sampling into a system that can provide individually tailored wellness care and cancer therapy at affordable prices.
So far, Soon-Shiong tells me, he has poured $800 million into 60 companies, university research programs and his own “do tanks” -– all under the aegis of a company he calls Nantworks, in honor of the nanotechnology he used to create a breakthrough cancer drug.
The son of Chinese émigrés who originally settled in South Africa, Soon-Shiong isn’t the first corporate buccaneer to have had such a vision, nor is he the only one now. The founders of Netscape and AOL were early movers, and now everyone from drug companies to telecommunications giants want in on the action. Universities, seeking both pure research triumphs and business for their hospitals, are working hard on pieces of the system, too.
After all, health care is one-sixth of the economy, and the Baby Boom is aging fast.
But, at a youthful 61, Soon-Shiong may have the right combination of polymathic mind, medical experience, research chops, financial resources, ego and salesmanship to get his comprehensive “Rocket Ship” off the ground before anyone else.
Indeed, parts of the flowcharts have come to life. They include a supercomputing facility in Arizona for rapidly sequencing entire human genomes; a national high-speed network called National LambdaRail; a research “bank” with tissue samples and sequenced genomes of cancer patients; a company that produces low-power medical monitors for easy home use; another that produces sophisticated body monitors; and research affiliations with hospitals, clinics and cancer-care centers nationwide. He also has deals with AT&T, Verizon and Vodafone.
Just last week, Soon-Shiong struck a deal with government officials in London to provide data processing services to the U.K.’s DNA data bank.
“In the past, the scientific, technological and digital pieces did not in exist to assemble the whole,” Soon-Shiong says. “Now they do. I like to look for patterns, in science and life. It’s what I do.” Only an interconnected, instantaneous, molecule-to-manufacturer managed care system can tap science and save money, he insists.
Soon-Shiong all of his life has been taking on seemingly impossible tasks, finding bigger answers for lesser questions, thinking far outside of the box.
No one has questioned his intellect or drive. His family fled China during the war with Japan in the late 1930s. His father, Chan Soon-Shiong, became a grocer and respected dispenser of Chinese herbal remedies. Both parents were Hakka, an ethnic group admired in China for brains and ambition, but seen as outsiders who stressed kinship and mutual help for their own.
From the start, Soon-Shiong refused to be trapped by circumstances or tradition. Despite living in the twilight zone of South Africa's apartheid –- neither “white” nor “colored” –- he studied medicine at the country’s premier university and managed to get an internship (for half pay) at the top “white” hospital. His chosen specialty was the pancreas and, later, pancreatic cancer. Why? “The pancreas is by far the most complex organ in the body,” he says.
It didn’t take Soon-Shiong long to start thinking beyond South Africa. He got a research grant from the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and moved with his young wife, Michele Chan Soon-Shiong, to Vancouver, to pursue graduate research. Three years later, UCLA invited him to join the school’s faculty. He performed the first successful pancreatic transplant on the West Coast.
That’s a career for some doctors. But at 30, Soon-Shiong was just getting started. He had his father’s interest in medical chemistry and his own eye for the main chance. He saw it in pharmaceuticals. He used Asian connections to build a business manufacturing generic drugs.
But that was a means to another end: inventing new drugs. While working on a NASA grant to study the behavior of human cells in weightless space, he became fascinated by the role of protein molecules in cells. If healthy cells grow by ingesting protein, why not use albumin protein to deliver cancer-killing drugs to tumor cells?
The ultimate result was Abraxane. It encases a well-known tumor-fighting drug (paclitaxel) in injectable nano-packets of protein. Soon-Shiong developed a complex system for freezing the material and spraying it through tiny nozzles to manufacture the particles. The idea was to target the drug and avoid the side effects of paclitaxel.
There were medical skeptics, and others who questioned Soon-Shiong’s business practices as he built his pharmaceutical empire. He once settled a corporate case out of court with his own brother. His pride and salesmanship occasionally clash with scientific caution. The FDA once ordered him to tone down promotional claims about his nanotechnology standards. Early in his career, he touted a diabetes treatment based on what turned out to be only a temporary success with a single patient.
But the FDA first approved the Abraxane technique in 2005. Abraxane is now approved in the U.S. for breast, lung and pancreatic cancer treatment. Regulators in Europe recently gave Abraxane tentative approval for its first use there, for pancreatic cancer.
Soon-Shiong eventually sold both his generic drug company and the company he built around Abraxane. He took stock in Celgene, the company that that acquired Abraxane. Celgene's stock price has soared 188 percent since the acquisition was announced in June 2010.
He is the richest man in LA. His wife retired from her career as an actress to rear their two children. One is in college and the other is heading there.
So now what? He has signed the "Buffett Pledge," promising to give at least half his fortune to charitable causes. Some people might retire, or turn entirely to philanthropic work. Not Soon-Shiong.
Having plunged as far as possible into the micro-world of cell and cancer biochemistry -- down to peptides and organelles -– Soon-Shiong has turned the lens around to look at humankind as a whole, as though we are a gigantic cellular system.
“I’ve been thinking about this nearly a decade,” he says.
He began acquiring companies and patents, some seemingly far afield from medicine. For example, Soon-Shiong owns numerous patents in the hot field of machine vision. How he can integrate that into his health care pursuits isn’t clear.
But give him time.
“I probably could make more money -– a lot more money -– from that business, but I want to stay focused on medical care,” he tells me.
“I have an obligation to use what I know to try to bring real, usable medical science to every doctor and bedside and patient,” he says.
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