ImmunityBio Executive Chairman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong joins Yahoo Finance’s Anjalee Khemlani to discuss President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative, cancer research progress, and his plans to bring South African medical innovation ‘to the forefront of the world.’
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Joining me now, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, executive chairman and global chief scientific and medical officer of ImmunityBio. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, thank you so much for joining us today. Pleasure to have you back on with us.
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: You’re welcome. Pleased to be here.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I want to start off with, obviously, the latest news that I’m sure you’re familiar with, on President Biden and his administration’s push for a renewed Cancer Moonshot goal. And specifically, it seems like what people are saying is that this is more palatable and the goals are a little bit more reachable, in terms of cutting deaths by half in 25 years, and something less aggressive than what had been done before. What are your thoughts on this new goal?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Well, I think it’s a laudable goal. However, having said that, when we launched our Cancer Moonshot four or five years ago, that was exactly the goal. Not only to cut it to half, but actually to convert cancer into chronic disease. And what I’m excited to say is our announcement a couple of weeks ago on pancreatic cancer, an announcement today on bladder cancer, it looks like we are close to that goal.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I definitely want to touch on that, because there have been differences in coverage. Some of your critics saying that you didn’t quite meet that 2020 goal from the initial program. And yet we have seen those incremental updates as well. What do you think this says, really, about the goal itself, and just about how hard cancer is to eradicate?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: You know, I think people misunderstood what– I mean, not misunderstood, it’s a real paradigm change. So there’s no misunderstanding, because it’s never been done before. And that’s why– what was the goal of our Cancer Moonshot? At the end of the day, the goal of the Cancer Moonshot was a complete paradigm change that said, you and your body have immune cells, called the natural killer cells and T cells, that can kill the cancer.
So it’s like going to the moon. The first established program is to say, in fact, is that true? Are there immune cells, natural killer cells and T cells in your body, that can kill cancer? And if so, does that actually change the outcome of patients who are put into hospice? We’re going to rate the real end stage that have failed everything, like pancreatic cancer, triple negative breast cancer, glioblastoma, Merkel cell cancer, lung cancers, and bladder cancer.
And that was the goal of the Cancer Moonshot from our perspective, stage one. And I’ve just tweeted, we’ve reached stage one. We’ve launched, reached stage one. And we’ve doubled the survival rate in metastatic pancreatic cancer. And we’ve taken patients with bladder cancer who have no other treatment left, other than to have the entire bladder removed. A 70%, over 70% complete remission lasting over two years.
So I’m pretty pleased that we’ve actually proved a hypothesis. Now, we’ve launched phase one. And now we need to go to early-stage disease, all the way to preventing cancer in patients like Lynch syndrome. So the answer is, we’re well on our way with Cancer Moonshot.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. Let’s talk about what has changed since that time you launched this in 2016, with several Big Pharma partners. And then the outfit that you had sort of done this through, NantKwest, you reverse-mergered into ImmunityBio recently. So all that put together with all these moves, what else has changed, would you say, whether in technology and biotech, or in diagnostic testing and sort of the investor market and the interest there? What pieces of the puzzle have changed for you, would you say, in that time?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Well, when I first started this, when we had this meeting with the Vice President, Vice President Biden at his residence, and I brought every pharma into the room with the FDA, with the National Cancer Institute. And maybe naively, the goal was that we’d all work together. There’d be no– there’ll be competition for sure, but at the end of the day, we acted for the common good. That quite didn’t work out, which then needed me to pivot to bring small companies together, which we did, under the umbrella now of ImmunityBio. So that’s happened, where we brought multiple platforms, the natural killer cell platform, an adenovirus platform, a yeast platform, a cell-amplifying RNA platform, all under one roof, which has never been done.
The next thing that changed was for me to understand how I need to build biological manufacturing capacity. And because of my experience with American pharmaceutical partners, in which we made a million vials a day for 10 years, and were responsible with the safe supply of heparin in this country during the heparin crisis, I had not only the background, but also the people who would actually follow that vision. And we now have close to a million square feet of manufacturing capacity for upstream and downstream of biologics, which will create, what I think, a national preparedness organization, not only for the United States, but for the world.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Yeah, I definitely want to talk about emergency preparedness shortly. But looking back on the testing part of it as well, I know that was a key piece to how you were looking to progress all the cancer breakthroughs. The GPS test, I know, sort of petered out a little bit. But it seems like we saw a little bit of that happen in the industry, with not necessarily a strong uptake of testing. Now, post-COVID, has that helped at all? Do you see, maybe, a new market or new opportunities?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Well, the GPS test did not beat out, actually, and that was one of the disappointments. In fact, we were the first, when we launched Cancer Moonshot, to do whole-genome sequencing and mutational analysis, which is exactly what’s happening with COVID. So not only we were correct, we got FDA approval. The problem is there was no reimbursement. So it’s very hard to say, an oncologist or patient, to do this very difficult test without any reimbursement. And that was the biggest disappointment. And we fought for four years.
Having said that, we didn’t give up. We have the only clear-cap certified whole-genome sequencing mutational analysis lab. In fact, on that basis, we’ve done the mutational analysis of every mutant of COVID, and look at its binding affinity to T-cells. That’s what’s driven our T-cell vaccine.
So all these things that we have put in place, it’s difficult for the consumer to understand that these things didn’t exist. The whole-genome sequencing, tumor normal didn’t exist. We built that. That was the GPS test. It’s necessary, completely necessary, and still is necessary. And then we sent these two machines to South Africa, to the University of Stellenbosch. And as you could see, Omicron and everything else, we discovered as a consequence of that.
So sequencing is important. However, what is more important is what to do with the results. So awareness is important, but response is more important. And so it’s no point in crying wolf if you didn’t have a preparedness or response. And that’s what we are building now. Now that we’ve finished the first two elements of the testing awareness, the next thing is the response in the platform and therapeutics.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I want to move into South Africa. That’s a place that you’ve really made your mark there. I know the manufacturing plant specifically for COVID vaccines. What’s the vision there? Do you have partners that you’re going to be working with, or is this largely for ImmunityBio’s vaccine?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Again, you know, we are in the same boat, right? I looked around, asked for partners. I asked every major pharmaceutical CEO that I have close relationships with. But it turned out that the only way to do it is to do it. So we reached out even to small companies in South Africa, where we want to build. We don’t want to crush any small South African companies, such as Biovac, AfriGen, et cetera. And the idea is to actually work in collaboration.
But more importantly, the capacity we are talking about is a billion doses of upstream biological manufacturing of adjuvants, self-amplifying RNA, yeast-based proteins, E. coli, recombinant proteins. And you know, we take in the Baylor technology of recombinant proteins with the adjuvants. And as you could hear today, or yesterday, I was so pleased that Dr. Peter, Otis, and Maria were nominated for the Peace Prize.
I think these are the kinds of things that we just have to do and have done. And now, you may have heard yesterday, we just announced the closure on the Dunkirk facility in New York. So now we have close to half a million square feet on the West Coast of the United States, half a million square feet in the East Coast of the United States, and half a million square feet in Southern Africa. And through that combination, we will have close to a million square feet of upstream-downstream manufacturing capacity, and be able to provide what we think is important for Africa as a continent, but more important for the rest of the world as well.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Tell me about that. You’re South Africa-born. You know the area and the politics really well. We’ve seen South Africa really shine throughout this pandemic in the science role, with obviously the sequencing of the variants as well as the breakthrough with the mRNA vaccine. What do you think really is the potential for them come the next pandemic and when it comes to preparedness? Because it seems like a lot of these efforts are really set up for later on versus the immediate need.
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Well, and this is the advantage of me being born in South Africa, trained in South Africa, treated TB patients in South Africa, left to come to this country. Grateful for all the knowledge and the resources this country has given me. I’ve lived the American dream. And I’ve always said that the United States should use its national foreign policy, the transport and transfer of health and innovation for the rest of the world, including more importantly for Africa.
So this is now us as a privately held company, and that works, actually doing that. So the idea that there’s not enough human capital in South Africa is outrageous. Because in fact, if you think about it, I don’t think many people know the first CAT scan, that everybody uses today, was invented in Cape Town. The first heart transplant, done in Cape Town. The thing called [? Ebola ?] syndrome, it identified the mitral valve and the heart disease, South African-trained. Professor Tobias, who trained me, discovered the first modern human.
So there are giants in South Africa that people underestimate. And my goal is to now expose the amazing innovation and scientific skills at the University of Cape Town, Johannesburg, my alumni, and bring this to the forefront of the world.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Certainly, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for that. And moving on to the last thing, which is the COVID-19 vaccine that you’re working on. What’s the timeline for that, and where do you see the market, considering what the trajectory of the pandemic currently looks like?
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Well, this is my level of frustration, right? If you go to– I don’t want to give a plug to the LA Times, but at the LA Times, I did “The Science Behind Coronavirus” in March 2020. And this is where we actually talked about the need for T-cell vaccines. And without T-cell vaccines, you will not stop this pandemic. You will not stop long COVID.
I now have a friend who just called me yesterday. He’s is in his 40s, got COVID twice, had a stroke yesterday. A stroke, think about that. Because this virus goes into every blood vessel. So unless you can actually kill the virus before it actually populates the rest of your body, no matter where it is, with a T-cell and natural killer cell, you will not not only stop this pandemic, you will suffer the con– I’m so concerned, suffer the consequences of long COVID.
So when people say, Omicron, don’t worry about it, it’s a misguided issue. And the pandemic, not only for COVID, but others are coming. We need to think about Nipah, Ebola, words that people have not even heard about yet. So national preparedness and setting up a platform that can create preparedness for all of these pandemics is what we’re doing. And I’m so happy to say we have that now in hand as a second-generation vaccine. I’m just hopeful the US government understands that we’ve received zero support, zero. And that there is some support for us creating this national preparedness, not just for the country, but for the world.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. Unfortunately, we’ll have to leave it there, but Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, thank you so much again for joining us. Executive chairman and Global Chief scientific and medical officer for ImmunityBio, and CEO and chairman of Nant Health.
PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: Thank you for having me.