With Kite in the bag, Gilead boosts oncology chief Riva to the head table

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Alessandro Riva’s new job comes with a seat on Gilead’s top leadership team, and puts him in charge of all of Gilead’s oncology programs, including cell therapy R&D.

What comes after a successful M&A hunt? A promotion for the lead deal scout. Weeks after sewing up a $11.9 billion deal for Kite Pharma and its cell therapy engine, Gilead Sciences said it's promoting Alessandro Riva to head up its burgeoning oncology business as an executive vice president.

Riva’s new job comes with a seat on Gilead’s top leadership team, and it puts him in charge of all of Gilead’s oncology programs, including cell therapy R&D. That means he’ll be presiding over Kite's forthcoming CAR-T medication Axi-Cel, now waiting in the wings at the FDA for an approval.

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Riva joined Gilead in January from Novartis, where he ran the oncology business, which just happens to be Gilead's next big rival. Novartis won FDA approval for its CAR-T therapy Kymriah in August and has since officially launched it with a $475,000 price tag. Kite and Novartis had been neck-and-neck in the race to bring the first CAR-T drug to market.

The Novartis and Kite drugs will be used to treat different groups of patients initially, but the companies are testing beyond those populations and could eventually find themselves competing head to head.

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

For Gilead, the M&A move for Kite gives the company an opportunity to shift away from its troubled hep C business. For many analysts and investors, the decision was long overdue. As the hep C business took a dive in recent years, industry watchers had been clamoring quarter after quarter for the company to buy something. During that time, CEO John Milligan suggested oncology was one area of focus.

In making the buy, Milligan said Gilead shares Kite's belief that "cell therapy will be the cornerstone of treating cancer." Analysts have said Kite's lead drug could generate up to $2 billion in peak sales.