Home » Patrick Soon-Shiong: The doctor who turned cancer breakthroughs into billions

Patrick Soon-Shiong: The doctor who turned cancer breakthroughs into billions

From transplant surgeon to cancer drug innovator

by Adenike Adeodun
Patrick Soon-Shiong

Patrick Soon-Shiong, one of the wealthiest doctors, with a net worth of $9.91 billion was born on July 29, 1952 to a Chinese parents who immigrated to South Africa during the Japanese Invasion. Soon-Shiong is a transplant surgeon, bioscientist, and media proprietor.

As reported by Soon-Shiong, his journey into the world of science and medicine was inspired by his father who was a practicing herbalist and a Hakka Association doctor. Soon-Shiong grew up watching his father heal patients of their diseases, which made him believe that humans have in their bodies the ability to protect and heal their bodies from diseases.

Aside from the inspiration he got from his father, his success as a businessman, scientist, and medical practitioner can be attributed to his expository nature, which he developed as a child. Soon-Shiong stated that everything looked like a circle to him while he was young, with no beginning and an end, which inspired him to learn about everything. In an interview with The Franklin Institute, he stated that his achievements were guided by his insatiable curiosity. With a smile on his face, he recounted how joyful he felt during a scientific breakthrough that he got addicted to feeling that way. This feeling which he called “The Joy of Discovery” also fueled his desire to see more scientific breakthroughs and solve the health issues humanity is facing.

At 16 years old, he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School Johannesburg. After graduating from medical school at 23, Soon-Shiong was asked to work at a “Non-European” hospital but due to his passion to learn more than he was learning, he took permission to intern at a “White” hospital in Johannesburg. His permission was granted on the condition that he would work for half the pay that his peers were taking. He agreed to the condition without hesitation.

Soon-Shiong got married in 1977 to Michele Chan, and immediately after their marriage, they immigrated to Canada. In Canada, he went to Vancouver for his junior residency. He got accelerated into UC Davis as a chief resident which made him the youngest professor at UCLA. At 30 years old, he did his first two whole open pancreas transplants and kidney transplants at UCLA. It was after he had done these transplants he realized that the procedures were highly dangerous because of the high risk of organ rejection. He also believed that the outcome of the surgery was not worth the danger of the procedure. So he decided to close down the UCLA pancreas-transplant program and ventured into a new line of research that would be focused on replacing the insulin-producing Islet cells inside the pancreas instead of replacing the entire pancreas.

He took a no-pay six-month sabbatical with the permission of his wife who was earning more than him at the time. During the six months, he set up a laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West LA, working with just three staff, he began sorting for Islet cells from pigs and human cadavers. After six months, he did his first Islet cell transplant at St Vincent medical center. Soon-Shion performed the world’s first encapsulated human Islet transplant and the first pig-to-man Islet cell transplant in a diabetes patient.

He started his journey in business when he left UCLA to cofound a startup called VivoRx with his brother Terrance in 1991 in a bid to commercialize his Islet-cell research. In 1994, VivoRx secured a $5-million investment from the generic drug maker Mylan laboratories.

In 1997, he also established APP Pharmaceuticals, of which he owned 80% of the outstanding stock, and later sold it to Fresenius SE for $4.6 billion in 2008. In 1998, Soon-Shiong was kicked out of the VivoRx board. 

In 1999, VivoRx under the leadership of his brother Terrence sued Soon-Shiong for fraud, due to this, he was ordered to transfer $24 million worth of assets to VivoRx now owned by his brother. He was also asked to transfer the Islet cell patents to his brother, with a verdict that he must not conduct any diabetes cure-related research for five years. Soon-Shiong considered the verdict to be evil.

In the early 2000s, he invented the cancer drug Abraxane, under the company he founded, Abraxis Bioscience. Abraxane was well-accepted due to its efficacy in treating breast, lung, and pancreatic cancer. The FDA approved of Abraxane in 2005. Before this time, Soon-Shiong bought Fujisawa, a company that sold injectable generic drugs in 1998. He used the revenues from Fujisawa to develop Abraxane, which wrapped an existing drug Taxol in protein which made it easier to deliver tumors. In his passionate quest to cure cancer, he spent over $1 billion of his own money to help find a better way to treat the disease.

He later sold Abraxis BioScience in 2010 and the American Pharmaceutical Partners in 2008 for a cumulative sum of $9.1 billion. Although he sold Abraxane to Celgene, he is still their largest individual shareholder, with well over $1 billion in Celgene stock and contingent value rights shares.

Soon-Shion also founded NantHealth in 2007 with the aim of providing fiber-optic, cloud-based data infrastructure to share healthcare information. The company went public in 2016 and its revenue rose to $100.4 million from $58.3 million in 2015 before it went public.

He founded NantKwest, now known as ImmunityBio, in 2002. The company focuses on harnessing the power of the immune system to treat cancer and infectious diseases. Nantkwest went public in 2015 at $25 per share. The share reached $35 the following day. Also in 2018, his company NantEnergy announced the development of a Zinc Air Battery with a projected cost of $100 per kilowatt-hour which is three times cheaper than Lithium-ion batteries.

In 2018 he bought the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Tribune for $500 million. He also purchased the Lakers 4.5-percent stake from Magic Johnson in 2010. In 2022, Soon-Shiong opened a new vaccine plant in Cape Town South Africa to help his local NantSA company make COVID-19 shots in the future.

Soon-Shiong is not only an expert at establishing new businesses, he is also an astute investor. In 2013,  he became an early investor in Zoom. As of 2020, Zoom was worth $139 billion, according to Forbes. Also in 2014, through Nantworks LLC, he invested $2.5 million in AccuRadio. In 2015, NanWorks LLC invested in Wibbitz during their $8 million Series-B funding. In 2019, Soon-Shiong became an investor in Directa Plus where he owns 28% of the company.

Soon-Shiong is on a quest to revolutionize the health industry and to improve the quality of life. He says the health industry is currently motivated by treating diseases but not by maintaining the health of the people which is a barrier he has worked all his life to break. He also emphasized that there needs to be incentives for keeping people healthy.

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