Gilead Science makes medicine work

Kelly Dawson
February 14, 2018
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As anyone who has ever sat in a doctor’s office knows, there is plenty that can be said about the body. A simple checkup can release a string of monologues about the status of organs and the levels of cholesterol, or how much weight was lost or gained in between appointments. We say, “Ahhh” and breathe in deep, we listen to recommendations and sometimes even take notes. And for many of us, that’s it — we get our report card and get on with the rest of our days. But for others, doctor appointments are different. Sometimes, they can lead to the scary news that a patient has a life-threatening disease.

When that happens, it’s important that patients and doctors have the medicines they need to treat whatever illness has gripped the body. It is a tough road ahead to be sure, but research, testing, and technology have made it so patients and their doctors can map out a future that still lies ahead. Gilead Sciences is at the forefront of planning this future, and making it so there might be one where current life-threatening diseases can perhaps find their cures.

It’s been 30 years since Gilead Sciences set out as a biopharmaceutical company interested in finding, strengthening, and perfecting the drugs behind some of the body’s most pressing problems. Since then, its research-heavy operations founded in the San Francisco area have spread across the world with thousands of global employees and the stature of a major player: Its market capitalization was listed at $111 billion in January. And yet, as far-reaching as the company is, it’s focused on specific treatments primarily for HIV/AIDS, cancer, cardiovascular ailments, liver diseases (mainly chronic hepatitis B and C infections), and inflammatory and respiratory conditions. The medicines the company creates either lead available treatments or were the first of their kind to do so.

Gilead Sciences’s goal is to address the needs that arise as soon as a diagnosis is made, and make medicines that work as efficiently as possible. In all, the medicines either treat, prevent, or cure a diagnosis. And because Gilead works across a series of disciplines — from science to academia to governance — the company has a wide reach that plans to give more doctors’ offices hope in the years to come.

(Re)Search and rescue

In order to understand why Gilead Sciences chose to focus on those six aforementioned diseases and illnesses, we should do a quick overview of how many lives are affected by each prognosis — let’s start with the first three off the list. According to the World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases are three many causes of death across the globe.

One million people died of causes related to HIV in 2016, and 1.8 million were newly infected. Then there’s cancer, which kills one in six people worldwide, and the number of those diagnosed is expected to increase by 70 percent in the next 20 years. Finally, a third of the world’s population dies from cardiovascular diseases every year, primarily from strokes and heart attacks, making it the leading cause of death on the planet.

And what about the last three of Gilead’s focus: liver, inflammatory, and respiratory diseases? Clearly, these are also cause for alarm on their own, but many other diseases can lead to them — for instance, obesity and diabetes can result in liver problems. The liver is the body’s largest organ and performs more than 300 necessary functions, from turning food into fuel for our cells to “cleaning” anything bad that we may eat or drink. Inflammatory and respiratory conditions, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis, cover a range of painful, deadly issues that can make it difficult to breathe or move.

All of this is bleak, but there is a silver lining: science. Thanks to dedicated in-house research teams and medical partnerships throughout the country, plus ongoing clinical trials, Gilead has produced 25 different treatments for the U.S. market. Once those treatments are ready for the public, it works with pharmaceutical companies, manufacturing partners, and other funders to get the medicines to people.

For example, take the three medicines Gilead has developed for chronic hepatitis C since 2013 — a fast turn of events for medicine. This “antiviral combination therapy” started in labs, moved onto trials, gained approval, moved on to marketing, and eventually made it so more people with this disease can be cured. In 2016, the lab moved on to a new project that would treat those who weren’t cured by that set of drugs. The process is arduous for every one of the six diseases and illnesses, and lots of groups are involved at every stage. But from lab tests to medicine cabinets, more people are being helped. And the more people who are helped, the more these diseases can be researched, and eventually eradicated.

Heal the world

Helping those in need is great, but only if they can afford it. Once the medications can go on the market, Gilead works with physicians and public health officials to find the most in-need populations and works with them to figure out how to move forward. In America, that can mean rebates and discounts for patients. Internationally, it means that the company creates “access programs,” usually with government help.

In 2016, Gilead worked with 2,000 organizations to get funding to provide such access. It worked: That year, the access program for HIV targeted countries that have 75 percent of the globe’s cases, and treated 10 million people with its antiretroviral therapies in low and middle-income countries. In other words, Gilead got its medicine to two-thirds of those living with HIV abroad. It was named the leading corporate funder addressing the global epidemic, with funds that surpassed $450 million.

Its work abroad plays into the company’s goal to reduce disparities between those who have access to medicine and those who don’t throughout the world. It’s partnered with a complementary objective to increase public medical education, which it hopes will boost prevention alongside treatment. Those objectives are huge, and the implications can be equally massive. But as large-scale as it seems, the company’s work still is personal. It all starts in a doctor’s office, after all — and Gilead wants it to end there, too.

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