“Cancer Moonshot 2020” May Offer More Hype Than Hope

STAT investigation finds many promises but few results

When he launched “Cancer Moonshot 2020” a year ago, billionaire physician Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong––the world’s richest doctor––vowed to form an unprecedented partnership among companies, researchers, and doctors that would result in a working cancer vaccine by the year 2020. But although Soon-Shiong has discussed cancer research with Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and even the Pope, a STAT investigation has found little evidence of scientific progress.

“At its core, the initiative appears to be an elaborate marketing tool for Soon-Shiong—a way to promote his pricey new cancer diagnostic tool at a time when he badly needs a business success, as his publicly traded companies are losing tens of millions per quarter,” the STAT report says.

Soon-Shiong’s plans center on two types of immunotherapies: a treatment vaccine and genetically engineered “natural killer” cell therapies being developed by one of his businesses.

STAT found that the moonshot program has promoted an expensive diagnostic tool, GPS Cancer, which analyzes patients’ tumors and recommends a course of treatment. The test is sold by one of Soon-Shiong’s companies and drives business to laboratories owned by another of his companies. Under the moonshot banner, Soon-Shiong has paid for researchers around the world to use GPS Cancer in their work, even though no published studies have validated it as an effective diagnostic test, STAT notes.

STAT also found cases of Soon-Shiong’s team taking credit for progress that doesn’t appear to have been made. For example, Soon-Shion said in statements that Pfizer and Merck had joined the moonshot—which, if true, would be a big step in building a worldwide coalition. But spokespeople for those companies told STAT that they were not aware of any involvement. The moonshot’s website also lists Johns Hopkins as a collaborator; neither the university nor its affiliated hospital was aware of any such involvement.

In another example of inflated claims, Soon-Shiong cited launching “over 20” clinical trials as an example of the “remarkable progress” that has been made during the first year of the moonshot initiative. He pointed STAT to a federal registry listing 23 trials. But 13 of them were initiated years before the moonshot program started—in some cases, almost a decade before. Ten of them were completed before the moonshot program was launched.

On social media, Soon-Shiong’s team has boasted that it is planning to develop not just an effective cancer vaccine, but one that could treat “all cancer types at every stage”—within approximately three years, according to the STAT report.

The team has also changed the name of the program from Cancer Moonshot 2020 to Cancer Breakthroughs 2020. That might have something to do with a lawsuit filed by the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, which holds a trademark on the “moonshot” name and has used the term for marketing and fundraising, STAT suggests. (Former Vice President Biden’s team paid to license the name from MD Anderson, according to the suit.)

Source: STAT News; February 14, 2017.