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Amazing, Up to a Point

A friend of mine in the drug discovery business asked me this morning on the train if I’d seen “60 Minutes” last night. I hadn’t, but he went on to tell me about a report they’d done on Patrick Soon-Shiong, an entrepreneur who’s trying to change cancer diagnosis and therapy. What struck my colleague was that pretty much all the points made during the piece seemed to him, as an experienced drug discovery scientist, to be pretty common knowledge, but that the program treated them as a series of amazing breakthroughs.
Matthew Herper has more here, based on a longer report he wrote back in September. Overall, he has a favorable impression of Soon-Shiong, but not a universally favorable one. Well worth a read.

16 comments on “Amazing, Up to a Point”

  1. LeeH says:

    His method should work. After all, all you have to do is, after you sequence the tumor, pull the correct anti-cancer agent off the shelf and, voila, instant cure. Of course, this is only possible because he plans to bring 30 or more new oncology drugs to the market every year.

  2. LeeH says:

    P.S. Of course, this is an old idea. It was the vision of a former employer of mine in the mid-90’s. We all know that once you know the target sequence, you just whip up a drug and within a few months you’re done.

  3. @countthebricks says:

    from the parts i caught, it sounded like he was more concerned with the approval process than the way the drugs are made – though still concerned about that as well. what is it going to take to change this? an uber-rich entrepreneur is not a new development to this story-line, no matter what 60-mins has to say about it

  4. Dr Manhattan says:

    “Of course, this is only possible because he plans to bring 30 or more new oncology drugs to the market every year..”
    Yep, that was the statement in the report that made me sit up and see if my Tom Swift BS Detector had pegged (it had). A company would struggle to effectively run safety and efficacy trials on 5 cancer drugs a year, let alone 30. And, as we all know all too well, where are you going to get the leads to have 30 drugs a year, year in and year out?

  5. Bill says:

    The bit in the linked article that lept out at me was the (perhaps deliberate) confusion between throughput and latency:
    “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”
    Maybe it’s clueless marketing but this seems to me to be a big red flag that should encourage close and critical scrutiny of his other claims.

  6. darwin says:

    Yeah, we all saw that reservatrol 60 minutes episode as well…next big breakthrough. I thought he did seem to have a balance of what was pragmatically achievable vs. what was pipe-dream, so it would be interesting to see if his failure rate is lower. Plus he is putting his own capital at stake for what he believes in. How many Pharma VPs can you count that would do that?

  7. maury says:

    Sell the sizzle. He’s a good sizzle salesman and that’s what gets investments to flow.

  8. Toad says:

    Ugh. I concur with the assessment of your train friend and the other comments. It was pretty nauseating to watch. Having been in the biotech sector now for half of my career, the well-developed bs meter was pegged throughout the interview.

  9. annonie says:

    Mostly old ideas by a grandious self-promoter.

  10. luysii says:

    Ah, 60 Minutes — it never fails to disappoint. During my decades in practice, i spent a lot of time with my patients clearing up the medical misinformation they put out — e.g. MS is due to the mercury fillings in your teeth, etc. etc. Unfortunately, it was an era in which TV was relatively new and more authoritative than it is now. Each clearing up after the medical elephants had to be done one at a time. Perhaps the readership here will have to go one on one with people who’ve seen the show. Welcome to the club.

  11. okemist says:

    They had been showing the modified t-cell video during the commercials of the football game, so during the show I told my son, watch this; this is how all good IPO’s start with a cool animation or movie. And this wasn’t even his science. I remember back in 93 when a VP told us you can’t just have a video anymore and have the VC’s come throw money at you like they had for his company. Now it seems you need to have your video on 60 minutes.

  12. Neo says:

    Yes, there is potential in the use of genomics to guide personalized oncology. However, this won’t be easy, to say the least. Many big-shoot scientists are selling the following idea: if you have a particular drug that works on a tumor sample and a second tumor shares one mutation with the first, then the drug should work on the second tumor as well. Wouldn’t be nice?… Has anyone actually bother to rigourously test this hypothesis?

  13. Lane Simonian says:

    I often wonder if the inordinate amount of time spent on genetics will indeed lead to the holy grail for cancer treatment.
    To paraphrase one pearl from Partick Soon-Shiong: people think of cancer as the explosion of cell growth when it is actually the failure of cells to die. The pathway this describes is the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt pathway. In many forms of cancer this kinase is overactivated. In many neurodegenerative diseases it is over time underactivated. And paradoxically oxidation is the key to apoptosis or the lack thereof.
    You can produce oxidants to try to kill the cancer cells. Intravenous Vitamin C injections attempt to do just that as Vitamin C acts as a pro-oxidant in cases of oxidative stress. Or you can use anti-oxidants to try to allow the body’s own immune system to try to kill the cancer.
    Oxidation is likely the key by which tumor cells escape death:
    From tumor cell metabolism to tumor immune escape
    Martin Villalba, Moeez G. Rathore, Nuria Lopez-Royuela, Ewelina Krzywinska, Johan Garaude and Nerea Allende-Vega
    Nitrosylated TCRs [T-cell receptors] lose the ability to recognize specific peptide/MHC (pMHC) complexes and therefore limit the antitumor activity of CD8 T cells (Nagaraj et al., 2007). Interestingly, there is evidence for a role of PNT [peroxynitrite] in masking tumor cells from the immune system (see below).
    Elevated nitrotyrosine (NT) levels are associated with poor prognosis (Nakamura et al., 2006). The conversion of tyrosine to NT in MHC-I molecules blocks the binding of peptides to them and favors tumor immune escape (Lu et al., 2011)…
    So ironically, the direct targeting of cancer cells by oxidation can kill them, but the production of oxidants by cancer cells ensure their survival.

  14. annon says:

    Right on

  15. annon says:

    Right on

  16. Anjani Shah says:

    The two common reactions from researchers to popular press science stories like that: ‘what’s the big deal/I do that too’ or ‘wow, I didn’t know my work could be made to sound so interesting’ reveals:
    1) Most scientists need help taking a step back and seeing the big picture and realizing how interesting others would find their work if they could explain it better and not get lost in nuances.
    2) Don’t treat science journalists as if they are the enemy; they are the key to bridging the gap; being media-savy (able to talk without jargon) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a scientist; a good science writer (or any kind of writer) can find a story in almost anything and scientists have a lot to give them. Of course a good science writer should also be able to entice without hype and inaccuracies. It is hard to be a good science writer, but there are some good ones out there — don’t avoid them all.

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