Patrick Soon-Shiong steps down as CEO of NantKwest, a linchpin of his 'Cancer Moonshot'
Five years after he took public what was then the most valuable IPO in biotech history, billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong is stepping down as CEO of NantKwest.
Soon-Shiong’s sudden departure comes as NantKwest adds a clinical-stage Covid-19 vaccine effort to the natural killer immunotherapies they’ve been developing for years. He remains the majority shareholder and he’ll stay on as executive chairman, but he leaves behind a complicated legacy and few tangible results from a company that briefly captured the attention of many in and outside of biotech. Richard Adcock, former CEO of Verity Health Systems and a longtime healthcare — albeit not biotech — executive, will take over the helm.
NantKwest had been founded as one of the linchpins of the brash entrepreneur’s plan to remake cancer treatment, one that encompassed his so-called “Cancer Moonshot” and an immunotherapy approach he labeled “quantum onco-therapeutics.” NantKwest specifically developed an off-the-shelf line of natural killer cells that he wanted to put into cocktail therapies to boost patients’ immune response in cancers. In collaboration with Big Pharma and the National Cancer Institute, he planned to eventually enroll 20,000 patients in numerous trials.
Results were slow to materialize, though, and investigations from STAT cast doubt on the progress of the initiative and raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest in how it was being carried out. Although it started trading at $25 per share and a market cap of $2.6 billion, by December 2018 shares could be had for $1.01. Soon-Shiong maintains his efforts were stunted after Big Pharma partners abandoned him.
Shares surged again at the beginning of this year after Soon-Shiong announced at the JP Morgan Healthcare conference that one patient with pancreatic cancer had seen a complete response. It was a notable achievement for a notoriously hard-to-treat cancer, but it stoked critics, who said it fell short of the randomized control data and that an investment conference was no place to release scientific results. The stock has also been boosted this year by reports that Alex Trebek and Harry Reid each received a Soon-Shiong-developed immunotherapy and responded well, and by news of their Covid-19 vaccine effort.
Although no longer CEO of NantKwest, the now 68-year-old doctor will still have his hands full. He is also a part-owner of the Lakers and owner and executive chairman of the LA Times, which is currently embroiled in an intra-company fight over who should be the top editor at the paper. And he is still CEO of several of the string of biotechs he’s founded over the last decade and a half.