[MEDICINE] Patrick Soon Shiong - Researchers' Darling & Investors' Suspicions
- At the Crossroads of Medicine and Money
Patrick Soon Shiong is a darling of researchers but an object of
investor suspicion as he seeks ways to market a cancer drug
By Lisa Girion, Times Staff Writer
After graduating with stellar grades from medical school in
apartheid South Africa, Patrick Soon-Shiong put in for an internship
at a top Johannesburg hospital.
The son of Chinese immigrants got the job but only by accepting
half the pay his white colleagues received.
That was the first struggle in a quest that transformed the plucky
doctor into a billionaire at the vanguard of drug research and
commerce. Three decades later, he is poised to launch a biotech
company in his adopted home of Los Angeles.
His father, a practitioner of traditional medicine who fled China
during World War II, had treated Patrick with herbal remedies and
endowed him with a belief in the healing power of nature. Now 53,
Soon-Shiong has spent more than half of his life trying to exploit
nature's medicine chest.
Along the way, adversaries including his own brother have
accused him of defrauding investors and hyping his science. But
always, despite the controversies, he found a way to stay in the
hunt. The pursuit took him to slaughterhouses to salvage pig
stomachs for research and to NASA, where he talked scientists into
putting one of his experiments on a space shuttle. And it led him,
with early financial help from his TV-actress wife and from former
auto mogul Lee Iacocca, to develop Abraxane, the first anti-cancer
agent on the market engineered through nanotechnology.
Abraxane is not so much a new drug as it is the repackaging of an
old one. It wraps one of the best-known cancer fighters
paclitaxel, a compound derived from the Pacific yew inside
particles of a blood protein thousands of times smaller than a speck
of dust. This submicroscopic Trojan horse gallops into the
vulnerable interior of a tumor cell, where it unloads its poison.
The novel drug might never have made it to market had it not been
for Soon-Shiong's aggressive business style and his insistence on
staying in charge of his idea a rare feat in the pharmaceutical
"This is where people make such a difference at the end of the day,"
said Richard Sykes, former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline. Sykes agreed
last year to join the board of Abraxis BioScience, Soon-Shiong's new
Soon-Shiong, a father of two who lives with his family in West Los
Angeles, boogie boards and plays basketball in his spare time. He
wears hair that hangs over his collar and brushes the top of his
metal-rimmed glasses and speaks confidently with a soft South
His name is on more than 50 patents and 130 scholarly articles. It
also is No. 116 on the latest Forbes list of America's richest
people. The magazine listed his net worth as $2.2 billion in
He could be worth twice that much, according to financial details of
his proposal to create Abraxis BioScience in the next few months by
combining two firms he founded in the early 1990s.
One is American BioScience Inc., a privately held research firm
based in Santa Monica that developed Abraxane. It would be acquired
by the other company, publicly held American Pharmaceutical Partners
Inc., a generic injectable drug maker based in Schaumburg, Ill.,
that makes and markets the cancer fighter.
Soon-Shiong would own 80% of the new company, which would debut with
an estimated market capitalization of about $5 billion. Analysts and
other observers have questioned whether the deal would unfairly
enrich Soon-Shiong the majority owner, chairman and chief
executive of both firms at the expense of minority shareholders.
Soon-Shiong says the price for American BioScience is fair based on
the projected future sales of Abraxane alone leaving out any
potential income from other drugs in the firm's pipeline.
Not all investors share his view. American Pharmaceutical's stock
has lost about a third of its value since news of the deal in
November. Shares closed Friday at $30.98.
CIBC World Markets analyst Elliot Wilbur said he remained a "true
believer" in the potential of Abraxane to become a blockbuster. But,
he said in a a recent note to investors, the more details that
emerge about the merger, the more it looks as if public shareholders
are getting the short end of it.
If Soon-Shiong the boardroom mogul irks investors, Soon-Shiong the
scientist he keeps a white coat handy in his office for visits to
the lab is a darling of cancer research. Abraxane has sent a
quiver of excitement through oncology circles, where submicroscopic
delivery systems are seen as a way to make drugs more deadly to
cancer cells and easier on patients.
"We think it's a hot drug, frankly," said Larry Norton, deputy chief
physician for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York. Norton, a board member at the National
Cancer Institute, has no financial interest in Abraxane.
In the trial that led to its approval for advanced breast cancer in
January 2005, Abraxane shrank more tumors and extended patients'
lives longer than Taxol, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s brand of
With first-year sales of $144 million, the company expects Abraxane
to grow into a blockbuster, eventually winning more than half of the
$2-billion paclitaxel market. That assumes it gets approval outside
the U.S. and for the treatment of other tumors including those of
the lung, head and neck, prostate and ovaries and for melanoma.
With Abraxane, Soon-Shiong is a pioneer in nanomedicine, a field
that exploits special properties of compounds that emerge when they
are manipulated at the atomic or molecular level.
"The hope is that this opens the doors for other applications and
other types of nanomaterials," said Greg Downing, director of the
office of technology at the National Cancer Institute, which is
awarding grants to spur nanomedical research.
Soon-Shiong got the first nanodrug into the cancer arsenal just in
time for Helen Gelhot, a St. Louis mother and physician-in-training
who was diagnosed with breast cancer last March.
She underwent a standard course of chemotherapy, but it had little
effect on the walnut-size lump in her left breast. The next step is
usually paclitaxel, but Gelhot's medical history suggested she was
at risk for a serious complication. That's when she zeroed in on
"I just knew it would be my salvation," said Gelhot, 47.
After the course of Abraxane, "I got a complete pathological
remission," she said. "I was really just so thrilled."
Helping patients is why Soon-Shiong got out of medical practice to
"The problem with medicine," he said, "is you have a limited
armamentarium with which to work. And yet, within science, you see
beyond this limitation."
Graduating from high school at 16, Soon-Shiong went into a seven-
year combined bachelor of arts and medical program at South Africa's
University of the Witwatersrand, becoming a doctor at 23. From the
Johannesburg hospital, he went to the University of British Columbia
in Vancouver, Canada, for surgical residency and simultaneously
earned a master of science degree in surgery there in 1979.
He completed his surgical training at UCLA and joined its medical
school faculty in 1983 at 31. Three years later, he performed the
first pancreas transplant on the West Coast on a patient with
diabetes and began looking for a safer approach to getting diabetics
That started a scientific odyssey that would lead to Abraxane. Soon-
Shiong wanted to find a way to inject the insulin-producing "islet"
cells from a healthy pancreas into diabetics, an idea that had
eluded researchers for two decades. The problem was the islet cells
were damaged during their harvest and attacked after implantation by
the patient's immune system.
Soon-Shiong's approach shows how he operates. A voracious reader of
biology, chemistry and physics journals, he talks about borrowing an
idea from one area and applying it to another with the excitement of
a grade-school boy at a science fair.
Learning of a new technology from rocket physicists, Soon-Shiong
found a way to use the tiny magnets they had developed to tease
islet cells out of a pancreas without harming them. But the junior
medical professor was unable to convince major diabetes
organizations that the idea warranted funding.
His quest might have ended there had he not met Lee Iacocca, who had
founded a research foundation after his wife died of diabetes a
couple of years earlier. Soon-Shiong persuaded the former Chrysler
Corp. chairman to give him $1 million to develop a seaweed-derived
gel that protected the islet cells inside a patient's body. He
stretched the money by forgoing a salary and spending it all to keep
a dozen other scientists at work in his lab.
Soon-Shiong relied on the income of his wife, Michele, an actress
who appeared under the stage name Michele Chan on TV's "Hotel"
and "MacGyver." She also had a regular part as a doctor for a season
on "Danger Bay."
To try to move his research forward more quickly, Soon-Shiong left
UCLA and formed his first biotech company with the backing of a
venture group that included Iacocca. Within two years, however, he
had his first clash with business partners. The financiers merged
the company with another over his objections.
Soon-Shiong left and returned to his UCLA lab in 1991 again
forgoing a salary to pursue his research. A year later, he implanted
islet cells in dogs, reversing their dependence on insulin without
the need for anti-rejection drugs. Then, in 1993, he performed the
first human islet cell transplant, keeping the patient off insulin
for a month.
The islet-cell transplants thrust Soon-Shiong into the national
spotlight and into controversy. Other researchers accused him of
encouraging press accounts that he was onto a cure for diabetes.
Soon-Shiong denies that charge and blames an overly enthusiastic
article in a British newspaper.
A few years later, Soon-Shiong found himself in another dispute at
VivoRx Diabetes, a research firm he founded after he lost his first
one. He said safety concerns led him to refuse to carry out planned
pig-to-human islet cell transplants over the objections of an
investor and fellow board member.
Six months later, the investor sued, accusing Soon-Shiong of
misappropriating money and the ideas behind the drug that would
become Abraxane. Soon-Shiong's older brother Terrence, who owned a
piece of the company, sided with the investor. Terrence Soon-Shiong
did not return calls for comment.
Though Patrick Soon-Shiong said he won an arbitrator's award, in the
end he settled the dispute by paying investors $37 million,
including $32 million to his brother, and walking away from the
But he left with clear title to the intellectual property rights to
Abraxane and control of a sister company, which became American
Abraxane was born in Soon-Shiong's frustrated diabetes research.
While he was searching for a supply of islet cells, he grew a few
batches from stem cells. But they kept dying.
In exploring how to sustain them, he came across research showing
that nutrients are carried to cells by albumin, the most common
blood protein. He also learned that cancer cells grow rapidly by
sending receptors out to attract nourishing albumin from the blood.
With this new understanding of the relationship between cancer cells
and albumin, Soon-Shiong saw an opportunity to help anti-cancer
drugs target tumor cells by cloaking them inside tiny particles of
This would eliminate a major problem with anti-cancer agents that
don't dissolve in water and must be delivered in toxic solvents,
often causing serious side effects. Paclitaxel, for instance, is
delivered in Cremophor, a solvent so strong it dissolves medical
tubing and can cause fatal allergic reactions. To avoid that,
patients must first take antihistamines and steroids, which cause
problems of their own.
Many scientists are trying to solve the problem by manipulating
compounds on the molecular level to bind them with benign delivery
agents. Soon-Shiong and his team found a way to deliver paclitaxel
inside nanoparticles of albumin, much in the way a fisherman wraps
bait around a hook. Without the solvent, Abraxane can be delivered
more quickly and in higher doses.
Oncologists are anxious for Soon-Shiong's team to see whether
albumin nanoparticles can give a boost to other drugs.
Because it got rid of the solvent, "everyone would have been pleased
if it was at least as good" as Taxol, said Mark Pegram, director of
a women's cancer program at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer
"It turned out to be even better."
- The Stringer (1992) TV Episode .... Mei Jan
- Hind-Sight (1991) TV Episode .... Mei Jan/Su Ling
- Children of Light (1989) TV Episode .... Mei Jan/Su Ling
Vietnam, Texas (1990) (as Michele Chan) .... Timi
Man Against the Mob: The Chinatown Murders (1989) (TV)
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989) (as Michele Chan) .... Chan Lee
... aka Arthur Hailey's Hotel
- Fast Forward (1987) TV Episode .... Nancy Kim
- Discoveries (1987) TV Episode .... Nancy Kim
- Undercurrents (1986) TV Episode .... Nancy Kim
- Hornet's Nest (1986) TV Episode .... Nancy Kim
- Queen's Gambit (1986) TV Episode .... Nancy Kim
"Danger Bay" (1984) TV Series (as Michele Chan) .... Dr. Donna Chen