Donald Trump considers NantKwest CEO for NIH chief

As his inauguration nears, Donald Trump has interviewed an eclectic mix of candidates for his pick as National Institutes of Health (NIH) chief.

One of these is said to be billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, CEO of I-O biotech NantKwest and a former surgeon, who is believed to be the highest paid CEO of 2015 (nearly $150 million), despite his company being very early stage.

Soon-Shiong is perhaps best known for Abraxane (nab-paclitaxel), selling the drug and his company Abraxis to Celgene in a $2.9 billion sale a few years back. He is also said to be in the mix for a role as “presidential science adviser.”

According to sources quoted in Nature, current NIH chief Francis Collins and Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who are both front-runners for job, met separately with Trump on Jan. 11.

Soon-Shiong is said to have met with him on Jan. 10, with Nature saying several people familiar with Collins and Harris described these meetings as “job interviews.”

NantWorks is the parent company for several Soon-Shiong ventures. He already has ties with the top brass in healthcare after recently launching his own 'Cancer Moonshot 2020' program in collaboration with the NIH, as well as the FDA and the White House.

However, the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center has used the 'Cancer Moonshot' tagline for years, but was irked by the billionaire's usage. The prestigious institute has in fact decided to sue Soon-Shiong and his businesses over their use of the “moonshot” tag for their new program. 

Other rumored candidates include Geoffrey Ling, a retired Army neurosurgeon and former director of biotechnology at DARPA, as well as John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University who has pushed for reproducibility in biomedical science, according to the journal.

The NIH is a biomedical research facility primarily located in Bethesda, Maryland, and is part of the DHHS. It is the leading government biomedical and health-related research agency and late last year was given $4.8 billion in funding over the next 10 years from the 21st Century Cures Act.

Harris, an anesthesiologist by training, helped put the Cures Act together, but along with Soon-Shiong has created concern for some. With both Harris and Soon-Shiong, ”My concern would be that this is a person who hasn't really been tested,” Keith Yamamoto, a biologist at the University of California, told Nature.

This also comes as former cardiologist Dr. Robert Califf will hand in his resignation as commissioner of the FDA, a formal part of the job as the new administration comes into the White House, around a year after taking on the reins.

Trump could decide to keep Dr. Califf on as the agency’s leader, but is said by CNBC to have met with Balaji Srinivasan, CEO of bitcoin startup, and tech capitalist Jim O'Neill for the role, both of whom have radical ideas on shaking up the FDA that, in essence, would seek to allow more innovative meds on the market more quickly, but with some fearing this could lower regulatory standards.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA deputy commissioner and venture capitalist, is also said to be in the mix for the FDA role, but was not said to have met with Trump last week.