“Our scientific expertise is about figuring out what’s best in the world and trying to bring that into Gilead,” says John Milligan, Gilead’s president and COO. And this strategy has led the pharmaceutical company to blockbuster drugs in arenas its competitors haven’t had nearly as much success in.
Over the past few years, Gilead has ushered through four effective new treatments for HIV alone. In late 2013, the company released a drug called Sovaldi, a breakthrough treatment for hepatitis C, which affects at least 130 million people globally, ravages the liver, and claims up to 500,000 lives annually. Sovaldi is the first antidote to the hepatitis C virus, boasting a 90% cure rate. During the first three quarters of 2014, the drug generated sales of more than $8.5 billion and helped Gilead more than triple its net profit from the previous year to nearly $3 billion. Sovaldi is now the fastest-selling new drug of all time, according to several estimates. It’s on track to unseat AbbVie’s drug Humira as the highest-earning drug of 2014—which has been on the market for more than 10 years—and last fall, less than a year after Sovaldi’s release, Gilead put out an even more powerful sequel, Harvoni. Meanwhile, Gilead has three more HIV medications in the works and several more to treat liver disease.
Gilead, which employs 7,000 people on six continents, was founded in 1987 by Michael Riordan, a medical doctor who had contracted dengue fever while working at a clinic in the Philippines and who experienced firsthand the persistence of viruses, which replicate quickly and commandeer healthy cells. (Dengue fever must run its course; he recovered.) Riordan set out to develop transformative antiviral medications. He hired John C. Martin as chief scientist—he’s now Gilead’s CEO. The company’s first blockbuster was Viread, based on a molecule it acquired from a European lab in 1991 that became one of the most widely used components of other HIV medications. In 2003, Gilead acquired a struggling company called Triangle Pharmaceuticals, which made a drug that could be combined with Viread to make Truvada, which was approved by the FDA in 2004. Immediately after that, Gilead entered a joint venture to combine Truvada with a drug from competitor Bristol-Myers Squibb to create Atripla—the first once-a-day single tablet to treat HIV. When this many lives are in the balance, Gilead knows it’s important to innovate quickly.
[Illustration: Nicolas Berger]