Gilead, looking for cancer sales, swipes Roche pharma chief Daniel O'Day for CEO post

Gilead is looking for cancer sales expertise as it seeks to breathe life into slow-starter Yescarta. (Roche)

With Gilead’s CEO on the way out and revenues tumbling, the company needs a leader who can pump up cancer sales. And it may have found just that in the ranks of the world's biggest cancer drug maker.

The Big Biotech has poached longtime Roche exec Daniel O’Day, who'll take the helm at Gilead on March 1. O’Day heads up pharma operations for the Swiss drugmaker, which has long led the industry in the oncology sales department.

RELATED: Gilead's top executives Milligan and Martin stepping down

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To replace O'Day at Roche, the CEO of its Genentech unit, Bill Anderson, will move from San Francisco to Basel to take the reins of the company's entire pharma business.

Foster City, California-based GIlead has been scouting a new skipper since July, when both CEO John Milligan and chairman and former CEO John Martin said they’d be stepping down. Milligan is set to depart at the end of the year, while Martin will exit after the California company installs its next chief exec. They’ll leave after presiding over a revenue freefall thanks to declining demand for and pricing pressure on hep C drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni.

It’s not just the hep C portfolio that’s in need of damage control, though. The pair also steered Gilead into an $11.9 billion deal for Kite Pharma that so far hasn’t paid off.

RELATED: Growth-hungry Gilead finally pivots from flagging hep C with $12B Kite buy

And that’s where O’Day comes in. He’ll be tasked with turning around flailing CAR-T player Yescarta, which has pulled in just $183 million through the first nine months of the year.

"Oncology historically has not been GILD's strong suit, so the hiring of an exec from a major oncology company reflects in part GILD's future direction," Jefferies analyst Michael Yee wrote to clients, adding that, "Roche has a history and culture based on science and 'innovation' in oncology particularly that should help GILD." 

Of course, the Yescarta launch is a bit different than those O’Day has captained at Roche. CAR-T therapy involves collecting and altering patients’ own T cells, a process that can prove both costly and complicated. Between them, Gilead and CAR-T rival Novartis have run into reimbursement hurdles and production setbacks, keeping their drugs from taking off sales-wise.

And speaking of Novartis, Gilead will have to shrug off competition from the pharma giant if it wants to find success for Yescarta. Novartis’ Kymriah in May won an approval in relapsed large B-cell lymphoma, setting it up for a head-to-head Yescarta showdown.

O’Day won’t be attempting a turnaround on his own, though. In August, the company brought on Amgen vet Laura Hamill to head up its commercial operations and replace the retired James Meyers.

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