As Vertex works through CF combos, it's looking to Gilead's example: executive

Orkambi
Vertex is working to snag reimbursement for its cystic fibrosis combo Orkambi in France, where uptake has been strong.

Which biotech company does Vertex admire? Hint: It’s one some analysts think the cystic fibrosis drugmaker should have snapped up a long time ago.

The “analogy that we’ve often talked about is with admiration of a company like Gilead,” Vertex COO Ian Smith said Wednesday at a Leerink Partners roundtable on rare diseases. He cited the Big Biotech’s “relentless” journey through HIV treatments, which began with one drug and moved into two drugs, three drugs and four drugs. And those four eventually came together in a single pill.

“We think of cystic fibrosis the same way,” Smith said. Vertex, which first rolled out Kalydeco and later snagged an FDA green light for two-drug combo Orkambi, is currently working toward bringing other combinations to market—including a triple, which could see a U.S. go-ahead in late 2019, Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges wrote in a note to clients.

RELATED: Gilead's best M&A option? It's not oncology—it's Vertex, analyst insists

Speaking of Porges, Smith’s comments may have seemed just a touch ironic to the analyst, who has suggested more than once that Gilead buy Vertex. After first broaching the idea more than two years ago, he made his latest case in June. As he wrote at the time, “we would view an acquisition of a growing and largely de-risked revenue stream, such as Vertex, much more positively than a comparable investment, or set of investments, into the intensely competitive, and technologically uncertain field of oncology.”

Gilead, of course, didn’t listen, moving in to strike an $11.9 billion Kite Pharma pact in August. And Vertex, meanwhile, is looking for its own growth and new revenue, some of which could come from overseas Orkambi reimbursement.

RELATED: Vertex trumpets data for new CF combo it hopes can outdo sluggish Orkambi

“Getting reimbursement outside the U.S. for Orkambi is probably our No. 1 growth driver, or, let’s say, acute growth driver near term,” Smith said. While the U.K. is “more of a midterm kind of thing moving through 2018,” the company could soon get a big boost in France. 

There, more than two-thirds of eligible patients are already receiving Orkambi treatment, but the company hasn’t yet been able to record the sales on its top line, thanks to ongoing pricing discussions. If the “constant and good discussion” Vertex and France have had this year results in a fourth-quarter accord, though?

You’d see a “large bolus of backlog revenue that would be recorded in one quarter,” totaling around $130 million to $150 million “pending the agreed price,” Smith said.