CBS CBS -2.69%’ fabled newsmagazine show “60 Minutes” just spent 12 minutes showing viewers everything there is to love about Patrick Soon-Shiong, the doctor who is the richest man in L.A. and, actually, the richest physician in the world.
As I wrote in a Forbes cover story in September, Soon-Shiong is rolling out a series of companies that represent a $1 billion-plus effort to fight cancer in new ways. This includes buying DNA sequencers to unravel the DNA of cancer patients, not in a clinical trial but as standard practice, at an unprecedented scale. (Really, read that story, which I worked on for months, before you read this one, for which I had hours.)
“I’m incredibly encouraged to say that we are on the path,” Soon-Shiong told 60 Minutes’ Sanjay Gupta. “And the technology to actually do all these things is not just hypothetical.”
Many experts in the cancer field would wholeheartedly agree. And Soon-Shiong, with his vast wealth and business sense could play an outsize role in making that happen. But there are caveats to his story that Gupta and 60 Minutes ignored, and they’re worth listing here.
This is all part of a for-profit company
60 Minutes just skates past saying that it talked to Soon-Shiong at “his company.” That makes it sound a bit like Soon-Shiong is a dispassionate scientist.
He’s actually a CEO who wants to convince investors to buy his shares. His net worth has been rising – it’s currently $13.3 billion, $2.3 billion more than the figure 60 Minutes used — precisely because the value of his companies has been going up as more investors come in. In September we valued his umbrella company, NantWorks, at $7.7 billion.
Last Thursday, Soon-Shiong said at the Forbes Healthcare Summit that he plans an initial public offering for one of his companies, NantHealth, sometime in 2015. He also said that he plans to put a lot of his NantHealth shares into a charitable trust for funding research against cancer.
But as an entrepreneur planning an IPO, he has every reason to want to talk up his project. His investors, including BlackRock BLK -0.21%, Verizon, Celgene CELG +3.5%, and Blackberry, would expect no less.
Many of Soon-Shiong’s “radical” ideas are conventional
When Soon-Shiong says: “A cancer is not what people think, cells growing. Cancer is actually the inability of the cells to die,” Sanjay Gupta seems surprised. The same thing happens when Soon-Shiong says that cancers should be treated based on their genetic mutations, not where they are in the body.
This idea isn’t some out-there statement; it’s basically conventional wisdom. Earlier this year I talked to a cancer patient who had select genes in her bowel tumor sequenced – and as a result took a lung cancer drug that made it shrink away.
Everyone is looking to use DNA sequencing to better pick cancer drugs. And in some ways, Soon-Shiong is an odd person to pick as a spokesperson for this, because he’s just getting started. When I visited him in August, the DNA sequencers he bought from Illumina of San Diego were still in boxes. During Gupta’s October visit, they were being run through their paces – not being used on patients. Soon-Shiong’s cancer-gene-analysis factory is just getting started. But it is also true that he is planning to implement these efforts on a scale that few else are.
He’s not doing it alone
One of the most dramatic moments in the “60 Minutes” piece comes from a patient named David Roy, a pancreatic cancer patient who, we’re told, got into a clinical trial using the drug Abraxane, which Soon-Shiong invented and which helped make his fortune, thanks to having sat on a plane with the doctor years ago.
Now Roy is in a trial of a new drug, which uses the immune system to attack tumors. And Soon-Shiong waxes eloquent about the potential of such treatments. Something the story doesn’t emphasize strongly enough: of all the amazing areas of cancer therapy that Soon-Shiong is working in, he is not working in the immune-derived cancer treatments that are currently showing amazing results.
He can be misleading
Sometimes Soon-Shiong makes statements that can be, at best, misleading. For instance, last year at our annual Healthcare Summit he stated that NantHealth could analyze a genome in 47 seconds, compared to 11 weeks at other genomics centers.
This statement turned out to be problematic. It came from the company’s ability to use supercomputers to analyze many genomes at once and, on average, it completed one every 47 seconds. But that’s a little like expecting McDonald’s to give you 800 Happy Meals the moment you pull up to the drive-through because McDonald’s serves 800 burgers a second worldwide.
But the number still sticks around – it’s prominently displayed on NantHealth’s website. Some of Soon-Shiong’s claims make it into peer-reviewed journals, but many of them don’t. It can be hard to know which parts are true and which aren’t.
I think cancer patients and investors alike should be aware of those caveats. But let me say something else: I looked long and hard at Soon-Shiong’s efforts, and I came away optimistic that something real might come out of them. He really does have some amazing computer scientists on his payroll. And he really can move genetic data around very, very fast. Those are real advantages, and it could be enough for him to build an important company around. But we should be careful with myth-making. None of this will happen overnight.
Soon-Shiong may be a genius, but geniuses can be catastrophically wrong. That’s why we demand proof. When it comes to Soon-Shiong’s new efforts, we’re still waiting.