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Gilead’s commercial chief on why 2023 will be a ‘coming out’ year

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When Daniel O’Day took charge of Gilead Sciences in 2019 as CEO, his efforts to reshape the company were anything but subtle. Although Gilead had grown into a powerhouse biotech specialized in antiviral treatments for HIV and hepatitis C during its 30-year history, it was also marred by several challenges including ongoing drug price controversies and years of revenue decline.

His answer was to embark on a major transformation. Within a few years, O’Day gave Gilead’s executive ranks a facelift with several new hires and put an ambitious plan in motion to expand its R&D investments and pipeline — particularly in oncology.

Gilead made strides on that front in 2017 when it bought Kite Pharma — with a bustling CAR-T pipeline — for $11.9 billion. Under O’Day, Gilead continued stringing together deals to bolster its innovative aims, including a 2020 matchup worth up to $1.6 billion with Arcus Biosciences to develop “next-generation immunotherapies;” and a $4.9 billion buyout of Forty Seven that will test a new class of cancer drugs called CD47 inhibitors, building toward a critical phase 3 readout expected this year.

Not all of Gilead’s recent endeavors have been a success. In particular, a $5 billion tie-up with Galapagos floundered when an immune-disease drug the pair were developing was rejected by the FDA — causing Gilead to ultimately hand some rights to the medication back to Galapagos.

Still, Gilead has been charging at full speed toward its goal of becoming a major force in cancer care. Its biggest move under O’Day was a $21 billion deal with Immunomedics in 2020 that brought in Trodelvy, a first-in-class antibody-drug conjugate (ADC)  approved for metastatic triple-negative breast cancer. And the company announced in April that the ultimate plan is to derive one-third of its revenue from oncology by 2030.

“We’re at a point where we built what we needed to build and now we need to execute.”

Johanna Mercier

Chief commercial officer, Gilead Sciences

Wall Street has been receptive. Over the last year, shares of Gilead rose by 21% while the industry fell overall by 7.3%.

As the company’s chief commercial officer, Johanna Mercier has had a front row seat to all of these shifts. One of the fresher faces that joined Gilead during the 2019 reboot, Mercier — who previously spent 25 years at Bristol Myers Squibb — is charged with transforming the company’s R&D and dealmaking momentum into a sound commercial strategy.

Mercier is also deeply connected to the patient experience. When PharmaVoice caught up with Mercier at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference earlier this month, she spoke in particular about a recent experience at an HIV clinic — a space where Gilead is still heavily invested.

The company scored an FDA approval in late December for Sunlenca, a new treatment aimed at helping HIV patients on two fronts. While offering a new option to patients who’ve developed a resistance to other HIV drugs, Sunlenca’s twice-yearly dosing regimen was also developed to be more convenient than daily oral antivirals.

And according to Mercier, this first approval could be just the beginning for Sunlenca. Gilead has additional phase 3 trials underway to test the drug as a preventative medicine, which Mercier said has the potential to “change the world.”

Here, Mercier explains more about Gilead’s transformation, the potential of Sunlenca and its future strategy for M&A.

This interview has been edited for brevity and style.

PHARMAVOICE: What kinds of strategic partnerships is Gilead considering now?

JOHANNA MERCIER: When we set forth this transformational strategy three years ago, we had to do M&A and we had cash to do it. So we placed bets. Oncology was a big part of that. And we were thinking about it in three pieces: (There’s) immuno-oncology, like PD-1 inhibitors, cell death drugs like chemotherapy and then there are tumor-targeting drugs in the microenvironment. We believed that a combination of having more than one agent and hitting more than one environment is going to help us raise the bar for cancer care. That’s the strategy.

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