The emotional video tells of a patient with blood cancer who tries an experimental therapy involving "natural killer" cells. "NEW BREAKTHROUGH HELPS PATIENTS KILL CANCER" the banner headline declares as the patient, wiping away tears, covers her face with her hands and murmurs, "It's really good news."
Billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong retweeted the video several times in recent days, amid a flurry of social media posts in which he vowed to "solve" cancer.
But where the ordinary viewer might see an inspirational story, drug industry experts saw a likely violation of federal regulations. That's because Soon-Shiong is the CEO of the company, NantKwest, that's working on the therapy in question, which still has to go through much testing to see if it works. And federal regulations bar the promotion of drugs that have yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
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After STAT asked Soon-Shiong's public relations director about this issue last Friday, the video was taken down from Twitter and Facebook, where it had been posted by another of Soon-Shiong's companies, NantHealth.
Over the weekend, it was replaced with an edited version that cut out two of the most powerful — and, experts said, most troubling — lines in the script: The patient's emphatic declaration that she believes she has been cured by the experimental therapy, and her musing that her doctors also believe it's working (see Facebook post).
That edit also removed the NantHealth logo, which had been superimposed on nearly every frame. And it cut out specific references to NantKwest's therapy, which is known as NK-92.
A second edit later in the weekend replaced the "new breakthrough" banner headline with more modest language: "The promise of immunotherapy."
Soon-Shiong's spokeswoman, Jen Hodson, said the video was not intended to be promotional; she called it an educational tool for patients. She said it was edited to remove lines that might have been confusing because Soon-Shiong's company did not sponsor the clinical trial that the patient participated in. The trial did, however, test a NantKwest drug.
The video posts come as Soon-Shiong and NantHealth have mounted a PR offensive to challenge two investigative reports published by STAT in recent weeks.
In the first, STAT found that Soon-Shiong's much-touted cancer moonshot initiative, which aims to develop a cure for cancer by 2020, has made little scientific progress and instead has functioned mostly as a marketing vehicle for one of his new products, a cancer diagnostic tool. The second story described how Soon-Shiong made a $12 million donation to the University of Utah for research — but reaped significant commercial benefits from that gift, as the contract was written in a way that led the university to conclude it had no choice but to send $10 million back to NantHealth to pay for genetic sequencing.
NantHealth's stock has sunk more than 33 percent, to $4.75 a share, since the publication of STAT's second report three weeks ago. NantKwest's stock is down to $3.39 a share; it's been falling steadily since the company first went public in the summer of 2015.
In the wake of the STAT reports, at least three investors have also filed suit against Soon-Shiong and NantHealth, alleging violations of federal securities law.