Four Questions with Merdad Parsey: Innovating to Help People with Cancer

Stories@Gilead - February 04, 2021

From his days as a practicing physician to his current role as Gilead’s Chief Medical Officer, Merdad Parsey says he’s always made decisions with a focus on what is right for patients. As Gilead broadens its work in oncology, Merdad says this remains a guiding principle – personally and for the company.

“There is a tremendous amount of innovation in cancer treatments, especially as we have come to understand the role of the immune system in treating disease. We knew that in order to succeed, we had to commit to building a team and portfolio that could push the boundaries and bring meaningful benefits to patients,” says Merdad. “We took a broad approach to take the best of our internal strengths while working with some of the brightest, most innovative teams around the world to advance a number of programs.”

This has allowed the company to substantively augment existing work in cell therapy with a broad portfolio of treatments that not only bring immediate benefits to patients, but also establish a pipeline with a long-term commitment to treating patients with difficult-to-manage tumors.

“Importantly, this approach augments and builds on our already formidable strength in battling HIV, COVID-19, HCV, HBV and immunologic disorders,” he adds.

We had the opportunity to speak with Merdad to learn more about Gilead’s and Kite’s oncology programs and what innovative treatments we can look forward to.

Q: Gilead was very active last year with acquisitions and partnerships in oncology. Can you tell us more about that?
In 2020, we significantly added to our portfolio to complement our strength in virology and immunology by acquiring approved oncology medicines, late-stage assets with strong data and important options to an impressive number of investigational therapies targeting the treatment of patients with cancer. We now have 27 internal, clinical-stage oncology programs focused on helping patients with the greatest unmet medical need augmented by a portfolio of external products that can substantively expand our ability to make a difference in cancer.  

These programs are at various stages of development – from a number of clinical candidates that we are evaluating in solid tumors and hematological malignancies to our marketed product for metastatic triple-negative breast cancer. In addition, through our collaborations with external partners, we have access to some cutting-edge research programs, where we have the right to opt-in as the projects progress.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how all of these pieces have come together?
We had the freedom to take an approach that was anchored only to: ‘What can we do to bring the most impact?’ We have taken and will continue to think primarily about the opportunity to bring benefit over a specific modality – and you can see that in our pipeline, ranging from antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) to small molecules. Importantly, we have focused on the potential of combining these modalities – cell therapy, large and small molecules and ADCs, to bring the greatest benefit. We are intentionally building a portfolio of candidate medicines that will enable us to explore new ways to put the pieces together to make a difference for people with cancer everywhere.

At Gilead, our goal – for oncology and all of our therapeutic areas – is to bring forward medicines that are truly innovative and offer transformative improvements for people with hard-to-treat conditions. As you look at the medicines we’ve advanced internally and the ones that we’ve added through external acquisitions or partnerships, you’ll see that goal has driven all of our decisions.

Q: How does cell therapy fit into the picture?
We work closely with our colleagues at Kite, who are responsible for the research, development and commercialization of our cell therapies. Kite is focused on getting those therapies to patients earlier in their course of treatment and broadening use of the medicines to make a difference in a wider range of conditions, as well as on advancing new therapies through the development process.

Our efforts at Gilead aim to build on and complement cell therapy, and we are starting to think about potential combination treatments as we seek to find innovative ways to make a difference for people with cancer.

Q: What do you most look forward to with regard to oncology in the coming years?
The coming years will be important for Gilead’s and Kite’s oncology programs – we hope the treatments that we bring forward will play a significant role in evolving care for patients. With our approved medicines, we have already achieved that goal; and we look forward to expanding that impact. As early as this year, Gilead and Kite have several submissions pending with the U.S. FDA to expand use of existing therapies in lymphoma, urothelial carcinoma and breast cancer. We also have submissions planned for bringing our medicines outside the U.S. and expect key data from a number of studies in multiple tumors including myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), breast cancer and lung cancer. 

I’m proud to say that the team we have brought together is deeply committed to continuing this important work to benefit people with cancer. We are all touched by someone with cancer: a family member, loved one, or acquaintance. Many of us have similar experiences with other diseases, like COVID-19. The Gilead legacy of changing the lives of people living with HIV, curing people with HCV and treating people with COVID-19 infections inspires us to be part of changing the narrative in oncology as well: to bend the arc of what it means to be affected by cancer. That’s why we’re here and why we’re so committed to our work across so many areas, including oncology. There have been many important advances over the past couple of decades. And there is so much more that needs to be done: that’s what drives us every day.