In a bid to diversify its portfolio and boost growth, Gilead Sciences has agreed to acquire Kite Pharma, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based immunotherapy specialist, for $11.9 billion.
Kite is a leader in the emerging field of cell therapy, in which a person’s immune cells are activated to fight cancer. Its top drug candidate, axicabtagene ciloleucel (Axi-cel), is a chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CART) therapy currently under priority review by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
Axi-cel is expected to be the first treatment approved for refractory aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Just two days after Gilead announced the deal, FDA approved its first CART therapy—Novartis’s Kymriah—for a form of leukemia.
Gilead established itself in the 1990s as a developer of HIV/AIDS therapies. The firm doubled its sales in 2014 with the approval of the hepatitis C treatments Sovaldi and Harvoni, which it got from its 2011 purchase of Pharmasset. But sales of those drugs dropped to $2.9 billion in the second quarter from $4.0 billion in the same period last year.
Under pressure from Wall Street to boost revenue, Gilead executives have been exploring oncology, with an eye toward cell therapy. The firm signaled a new direction earlier this year when it hired Alessandro Riva, then an oncologist at Novartis, to head its hematology and oncology therapies division.
The complexity of manufacturing individual cell therapy treatments will pose a challenge for Gilead as it enters the area, industry watchers note. “Kite’s technology has a lot of potential, but Gilead will need to work hard to retain Kite’s scientists,” says John LaMattina, nonexecutive director at PureTech Health and former head of research at Pfizer. “Given all the competition in the CART field, it is likely that many of the Kite scientists will be very poachable.”