Biotech Kahuna (Pg 2 of 5)

He later faced another roadblock to a first-class medical education. The elite all-white Johannesburg General Hospital where he hoped to do his internship had never admitted a Chinese student. His medical school department chairman stipulated that he would not sponsor Soon-Shiong’s application to intern there unless he graduated among the top four in his class of 189. Soon-Shiong did just that at the age of 23.

“I was determined to have my internship at this particular prestigious white hospital because I knew that’s where I’d get the best training and work with the best doctors,” Soon-Shiong recalls. Even then he had to take half the salary of white interns. “My peers wanted to go on strike over that, but I said, no, I’d be glad to take the lower salary just so I could learn from the best.”

“My first patient there was an Afrikaner in the cancer ward who had a very high temperature for several days but refused to have me examine him,” Soon-Shiong recalls. “My professor told the man he’d have to leave the hospital if he didn’t let me look at him. I figured out what was the problem and got his temperature down. After that, that man would walk around the hospital saying, ‘That Chinaman, make sure he examines you.’”

In 1977 Soon-Shiong finished his internship and turned down an offer of a staff position at an academic hospital. Instead he worked for six months at a tuberculosis clinic for blacks while seeking opportunities outside of South Africa. He received two offers from Canada. He accepted a surgery residency at Vancouver General Hospital at the University of British Columbia.

By the time Soon-Shiong left South Africa he was married to a struggling young actress named Michele Chan who was facing her own racial barriers. Her race precluded her from landing roles on South African TV.

At Vancouver General Soon-Shiong showed some exceptional surgical skills. He recalls a bet with a professor who refused to believe that a resident of his inexperience could remove a tumor the size of two grapefruits without rupturing the cyst. The professor backed up the assessment by pledging his big antique mahogony desk if Soon-Shiong proved him wrong.

“Michelle and I rented a dolly to wheel that desk across the street to our apartment,” Soon-Shiong exults.

In Vancouver Soon-Shiong also began showing the split focus that would characterize the working style that led to his later success. He worked in the surgical ward by day but devoted evenings to earning a masters of science degree by working with an eminent pancreatic cancer researcher. By the time Soon-Shiong earned his masters in 1978 he became the first resident to win multiple research awards simultaneously from the American College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and the American Association of Academic Surgery.

In 1980 his work also secured him an offer from UCLA Medical School where he completed the training to win board-certification as a surgeon. In 1983 he was invited to join the faculty. Soon-Shiong conducted research on new techniques for delivering chemotherapy. He also performed the UCLA Medical Center’s first pancreas transplant.

Meanwhile Michele too was enjoying career success in their new hometown. In 1984 she landed a regular role on the children’s TV series Danger Bay.

“Here’s a wonderful irony,” says Soon-Shiong. “They refused to put Michele on South African television when we lived there. But after she got a role in Danger Bay, of course South African TV bought that show and aired it.”

UCLA became interested in having Soon-Shiong start up a new transplant program. He was more interested in developing a less invasive way to treat diabetes by transplanting healthy islet cells that could produce insulin inside the patient’s own pancreas. The technique had led to a dead end a decade earlier when researchers were unable to devise a way to keep the patient’s immune system from destroying the cells before they could begin producing insulin. In 1987 Soon-Shiong came up with the strategy of encapsulating the islets in a gel made from seaweed. He believed the coating would protect the islet cells from being attacked by the immune system while providing oxygen through photosynthesis. Next

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