Can the World’s Most Connected Doctor Cure Cancer?

He was physician to the late Steve Jobs, pal to Elon Musk and Howard Stern, counselor to both Trump and Biden. Now he’s founded the most cutting-edge cancer center in L.A.

We all know connectors, that archetype that Malcolm Gladwell described in his 1999 New Yorker essay. They know everyone because they go out every night, throw parties, raise money for causes, and tell new friends they must absolutely meet someone they know.

Dr. David Agus doesn’t do any of those things. He doesn’t go out to dinner. He eats at home with his family. Lunches at the office.

Agus is not a connector. He’s an attractor. He’s genius Forrest Gump, a soft-spoken and menschy cancer researcher and doctor who can always be found at the most cutting-edge places. So when powerful people get cancer, he’s the doctor they often come see.

Larry Ellison, the Oracle founder and one of the ten richest people in the world, encountered Agus twice early on. Once when his nephew needed treatment and, later, when his best friend, Steve Jobs, came under his care. After that, Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at USC, was having breakfast at Ellison’s house, when Ellison asked how much it would cost to build Agus’s dream research facility. Agus did some quick math and made up a number: $200 million. Which was fine with Ellison.

From left, David Agnus with Larry Ellison at the Transformative Medicine of USC: Rebels with a Cause gala, 2019 (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images)

What you get for $200 million is the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC, which looks nothing like the place you picture cancer might be cured. The new, 79,000-square-foot building in West L.A., designed by the architecture firm RIOS, looks less like a lab and more like a Sedona spa. It’s an airy glass-and-wood building with both a sculpture garden and a raked-gravel Zen garden. Yes, there are scientists in white coats with beakers, but they do their work in labs behind big glass windows, like EPCOT attractions. It’s far more “namaste” than “eureka.”

It is definitely the only cancer research center to throw an opening party where Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher were interviewed by Entertainment Tonight on the red carpet while Judd Apatow and Eric Garcetti stood nearby. It’s also the only one that will soon host a pop-up restaurant from Copenhagen’s Noma.

“This is a lot nicer and more grand than what we pictured,” says Agus, sitting in an office under a Picasso painting, not far from sculptures by Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, and Robert Indiana. “When Larry does things, he gets intimately involved. So the color white on the wall? Larry chose that. It’s much more relaxing to the human brain than other shades of white.” (In case you’re wondering, it’s Dunn-Edwards Suprema Eggshell, and it’s a damn nice white.)

Agus, 56, is perhaps the only top research doctor who is also something of a pop-culture bon vivant—imagine if Dr. Phil had written Civilization and Its Discontents. He’s penned best-selling books (such as A Short Guide to a Long Life), has been a contributor to CBS Mornings since 2013, and appears on Howard Stern so regularly, he has his own theme song (his name sung to the tune of “Rock Me Amadeus”).

He has, improbably, turned himself into a brand. He was taught by Jobs, who insisted he wear the same nondescript, serious-but-nonthreatening outfit every time he appeared in public. So Agus has found a way to make a thin, black V-neck sweater over a white button-down shirt look iconic. “If I wear a gray or white sweater, people don’t recognize me. It’s an amazing thing to be able to turn on and turn off,” he says.

Agus’s talent for communicating with the public didn’t come naturally. He was a studious kid from a studious family. His grandfather, Jacob Agus, was a writer and rabbi with a Ph.D. from Harvard. “We would read Charles Darwin. He would teach me Arabic and Latin and Greek. Most kids are out playing baseball, so I didn’t really appreciate it,” he says.

At 10 or 11, Agus left his Philadelphia home to spend the summer at a science program at the University of Florida. By high school, he had designed an experiment with rodents that went on the Space Shuttle. (It didn’t go well. The mice died.) Though his father was a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Agus preferred the molecular biology program at Princeton. He paid for part of school by cofounding a company called the Munchie Agency, which delivered soda and snacks to college kids too stoned to leave the dorm.

Agus did eventually end up at the University of Pennsylvania for medical school, and then John Hopkins for his residency. Though he was a cancer researcher, he took a job as a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to learn firsthand from patients. That’s when the attracting began. He was working in a lab at Sloan Kettering when someone knocked on his door. “I look up, and it was the Time Man of the Year, Andy Grove. I was like, ‘Holy shit!” Agus recalls.

The Intel CEO had prostate cancer and was getting a tour of the hospital’s labs. After they talked, Grove decided that Agus was a genius but sucked at conversation. Over the next year, Grove took it upon himself to teach Agus how to present his ideas, setting up more than 150 presentations to force him to improve. Then Grove decided Agus needed to move to California.

“He said, ‘You stay on the East Coast, you hit singles. You go to the West Coast, you swing for the fences. If you strike out, you start again.”

Agus got a job at Cedars-Sinai, with Grove acting as his unofficial agent. “You know what a hospital is like when Andy Grove is negotiating your contract? They thought I was psychotic. They couldn’t understand who or what I was,” Agus says.

One of the reasons Agus attracts tech moguls and other industry titans is that he specializes in prostate cancer, which is a disease that attacks older men. This affords more access to powerful people than treating cleft palates. Among his famous patients: Lance Armstrong, Ted Kennedy, Neil Young, Sumner Redstone, Eli Broad, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Ramone, and former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Tom Shera.

For six years, Agus took care of Paramount CEO Brad Grey, who, despite Grove’s boot camp, thought Agus could still use some help on talk shows. Grey got two focus groups to watch Agus’s presentations as if they were TV pilots. One thing Agus learned from them was that most people were actually turned off by his long list of celebrity patients, assuming that the doctor treated only VIPs, not folks like them. “So now I’m very conscious to say, ‘Everything I say is achievable by everybody,” Agus notes. “This is not just care for the rich.’” He adds that most patients at the clinic pay via Medicare.

Agus also includes a phone number on his Twitter account where just about anybody can text medical questions. He pulls out his phone to show me about 100 messages waiting for his reply, including one from a woman asking Agus to make a video announcing to her fiancé that she’s pregnant.
“Sure,” he says.

Even Agus’s house is an attractor. A 1959 midcentury modern in Beverly Hills, it was first owned by Armand Deutsch, the grandson of the CEO of Sears. Frank Sinatra used to sing in Deutch’s living room, and Ronald Reagan threw his L.A. presidential inauguration party there when he owned it.

“When we bought it, I was taking care of Merv Griffin,” Agus tells me in his backyard. “So Merv told Nancy Reagan, and she goes, ‘The house is going to fall down. Don’t tell your doctor.’ Griffin told Agus anyway. “And literally, as I got this note from Merv, I saw a squirrel go right through the roof.” Agus put a tin roof on the house because he was house poor and tin roofs were cheap. A few weeks later, a fire burned down both of the other houses at the top of his driveway. The tin roof saved his home.

Until two years ago, when she died at 101, his next-door neighbor was Sinatra’s former wife, Nancy, who acted as an extra grandmother to Agus’s two kids with his wife, Amy Povich, Maury Povich’s daughter.

Being an attractor has its challenges in politically polarized times. Agus has worked with both Joe Biden, when he was vice president, and Donald Trump, when he was president, doubling his chances of pissing people off. Like some other doctors in March 2020, Agus publicly expressed interest in hydroxychloroquine. It was subsequently proven ineffective. And a month before that, he guessed on TV that COVID-19 wouldn’t be a major problem for America—which Trump later edited into an anti-media video he showed at a press briefing. “It got really scary,” Agus remembers. “I mean, the president of the United States put a video of a cancer doc with five words of a long sentence taken out of context.” Still, despite the video and the criticism it understandably generated, Agus continued advising the Trump administration. “It’s hard to swallow. But my job is to help. You rise above that. We work with all kinds of governments.”

The Ellison Institute is designed to be a catalyst for the kind of serendipity that’s propelled Agus’s career. Those scientists are in full view of patients so they can ask each other questions. The halls are also walked by people with no connection to cancer: an astrophysicist, an artist, a statistician. That’s Agus’s big idea—to cross-pollinate brains from wildly different fields—which he came up with after Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann suggested he study rougher-grain data to find the big theories that cancer research lacks. Ellison recently bought five houses nearby to put up visiting experts from fields other than cancer research. “You call a mathematician from Ukraine and say, ‘Listen, I’m going to give you three months in L.A. and a car. And they’re here,’ ” Agus says. And, yes, that car will be a Tesla. Because Agus knows Elon Musk through Ellison.

“We haven’t cured this disease at all. So by definition, my people—cancer docs—have failed. That’s why we need to bring in other people,” Agus says. “We brought in a cryptographer, and he gets all these crazy ideas of how to look at the data differently and compress it into an algorithm. It was this gold mine of a conversation.”

Because the institute is built with Silicon Valley money, all of that interaction gets tracked. Location-tagged badges tell the institute who stopped to talk to whom, allowing Agus to determine if everyone is being interdisciplinary enough.

But it’s also purposely un-Silicon Valley. A permanent display on the fourth-floor walls was built to show visiting high schoolers the history of cancer treatments through the ages. In another room, huge wood doors part to reveal a collection of John Hopkins Medical School cofounder William Osler’s old medical books, his original wood stethoscopes, and a tin of cocaine candies he liked to suck on.

“I want to say we’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” Agus says of the mini cancer museum. “The Silicon Valley attitude of ‘We’re reinventing the future’? We’re not that.”

In addition to treating patients, the building has a wellness component on the fifth floor, complete with an outdoor deck with amazing views of the city. “We have people from across the globe. Some fly in with their doctors, and we give them a plan for the year,” Agus says. The program filled up before it officially opened.

Because he deals with both patients and scientists and because he ran the Munchie Agency, Agus focuses as much on implementation as discovery. And that’s an approach that he and his team believe will spread to other treatment centers in L.A.

“I think L.A. is the next big biotechnology hub. It’s really fertile,” says Dr. Anna Barker, the former principal deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and now the Ellison Institute’s chief strategy officer. “We’re on our way to bringing all these disciplines together and rewriting how medicine should be done and how patients should be viewed as whole organisms.”

Agus has been an L.A. pros-elytizer since Grove first sent him here. He seems fully immersed in it even if he never goes out. Sitting in his yard, the world’s calmest dog greets him. Povich comes outside with a wood tray of cappuccino she’s made with a new machine from Café Lux, which provides coffee at the Ellison Institute. An old Porsche convertible and a Vespa sit
in the driveway.

“Here, the elite are the artists, the actors, the writers,” he says. “They value creativity in a scientist. In New York, it’s bankers. We just didn’t fit in as well as we do here.”

Inside their house, which is decorated with an impressive photography collection, he shows me his latest acquisition. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff sent him five of physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s medals, though not his Nobel, which Benioff stopped bidding on after it more than doubled its Sotheby estimate amount and sold for $625,000.

Benioff FaceTimed last night and asked why Agus wasn’t wearing Gell-Mann’s engraved 1993 Lindbergh Award Longines Hour Angle watch. “He said, ‘It’s meant to inspire you when you’re having a bad day,’ ” Agus says.

It’s still in its case.

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