Billionaire’s fight for life

The entrepreneurial founder of a couple of pharmaceutical companies has worked relentlessly to bring together drugmakers under one roof to solve a disease that kills millions

A billionaire entrepreneur has pulled together a coalition of drugmakers to speed development of what researchers believe could be a powerful weapon against cancers - - potent combinations of new drugs that harness the body’s immune system.

So-called immunotherapies help disease-fighting cells attack tumors. Yet researchers believe they may work best when two, three or more of the drugs are used together -- overwhelming a tumor’s cellular defenses with attacks from all sides.

The group brought together by Patrick Soon-Shiong calls itself Moonshot 2020 and also includes academic institutions and insurers. Its leaders hope to get competing drug and biotech companies to work together on the combination treatments rather than developing their own compounds in isolation.

“The key contribution here is the ability to run combination studies with drugs from multiple pharma companies in a rapid manner,” said Manuel Hidalgo, clinical director of the Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Combination studies with unapproved drugs from different pharma companies are not easy to do, and we want to be able combine three to four drugs, not just two."

While the immunotherapies have side effects of their own, physicians have hoped they can be better tailored to a patient’s tumor profile, and someday replace or supplement chemotherapy, which is thought of as a blunt tool with high toxicity.

The group aims to complete clinical trials for up to 20 tumor types in as many as 20,000 patients by the year 2020, according to a statement issued at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. Participating drugmakers include Amgen Inc., Celgene Corp., GlaxoSmithKline Plc and NantWorks LLC, as well as health insurer Independence Blue Cross and Bank of America Corp., which is self-insured, according to the statement.

Biden Meeting

Members of the coalition met with U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who said in a November speech that a “moonshot" was needed to cure cancer. Biden’s speech came after meeting with Soon-Shiong, the billionaire said. The coalition hasn’t asked the Obama administration for financial support, according to NantWorks.

All 20,000 patients will have their tumors genetically sequenced, and the plan is to create a patient registry where drugmakers can search for specific patients that fit the criteria for their trials, said Soon-Shiong, chief executive officer of NantWorks. Soon-Shiong became a billionaire through drug companies he started and sold, APP Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Abraxis BioScience Inc.

“People in large pharma now realize they can’t go it alone," Soon-Shiong said in an interview. The coalition is in very early stages and hadn’t determined yet how much each participant might contribute financially and how the group would collectively maintain a database of patients, he said.

Independence Blue Cross will cover patient costs related to trials for its members, and will also cover genomic sequencing performed by Soon-Shiong’s company NantHealth, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Sell. The Philadelphia-based health insurer covers 10 million people in 34 states and Washington, D.C., according to its website.

Caroline Chen
Bloomberg News