I nervously attended a lecture at The Scripps Institute in La Jolla on the future of cancer treatment grandly titled, “Are We on the Way to Curing Cancer in the Era of Genomics and Proteomics?”. At first I was worried I wouldn’t understand it at all. Wearing shorts and a nice t-shirt while walking alongside a flock of men in ties and suits that probably cost more that I made last year past a lot full of Porsches, Maseratis and Ferraris did nothing to relieve my “What am I doing here?” apprehension.
The title of the lecture was a little misleading because it was more about the future of cancer treatment, not the curing of it.
The evening began with an introduction by Michael Kalichman, co-founder and Director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, who admitted that he had recently been diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. It was understood, if not openly announced, that his treatment was being overseen by Dr. Soon-Shiong, the evening’s presenter.
After Dr. Kalichman’s opening remarks he introduced Razelle Kurzrock, Senior Deputy Center Director for Clinical Science at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, as moderator for the evening.
She introduced Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong who has way too many titles to list here and is estimated to have a personal wealth of $9 billion. Suffice it to say that he is probably the most successful individual I’ve ever been in the same room with, with the possible exception of the even wealthier Bill Gates. Not only has he started and sold at least two pharmaceutical companies and now chairs a philanthropic foundation, but within the previous two weeks he had personal meetings with President Bill Clinton at his Clinton Foundation, with Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, as well as with the President of Thailand, all to discuss his direction on cancer treatment. He will also be going to a few other countries including China in the coming months.
His cancer regimen incorporates a joining of multiple technologies that include diagnostics, supercomputing, a network model of sharing data on tumor genes, as well as a personalized mixture of a combination of cancer drugs for multi-targeted attacks. His latest company, NantHealth, (along with NantMobile under the umbrella company, NantWorks) works to target individual cancer patient treatments with specific cancer drugs based on sequencing 22,000 protein-creating genes that directly affect cancer cells. The supercomputing technology that his company uses has dramatically decreased the computing time needed for this kind of diagnosis (less than a minute), also bringing the cost way down to less than $1000. He said that 80% of patients today are getting the wrong drug treatments for their specific cancers.
He gave the example of one of his patients who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and prescribed the usual chemo-drug therapy with terrible results. He and his team took her on as a patient and were able to target her treatment with an available breast cancer drug regimen that put her cancer into remission. He also showed a slide of a patient who had metastasized pancreatic cancer, affecting their entire abdominal and chest cavities, and who was told they had at most three months to live. He then showed a comparison slide of the same patient, fourteen months later, with no sign of cancer, after he put the patient on a targeted treatment with currently available drugs. He said his company can boast of an 84% success rate.
He is a big advocate of the FDA, working closely with them in this new endeavor. He said the scientists who work there genuinely want to help patients. On the other hand his biggest hurdle is the insurance industry bureaucracy. He said that until the insurance companies change their business paradigm from costly disease treatment to one of being rewarded for disease prevention, they will keep doing what they’re doing and making it more costly to the patients each year. Dr. Soon-Shiong said that, thanks to his efforts as well as those of others, he sees a dramatic change in worldwide healthcare within the next ten years.
What I thought would be a presentation I would be completely lost in turned out to be a fascinating lecture that I couldn’t stop being interested in and thinking about afterwards.
The evening ended with an onstage discussion between Dr. Soon-Shiong and Dr. Kurzrock, along with some very intelligent sounding questions from a few audience members.
I came away from the evening’s event feeling a little smarter and more hopeful for the future of healthcare and disease treatments.