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[MEDICINE] Patrick Soon Shiong - Researchers' Darling & Investors' Suspicions

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  • madchinaman
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 2006
      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
      African lilt.

      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
      pursue research.

      "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
      off insulin.

      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
      diabetes company.

      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
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