Gilead Reels In Kite: High Price, Huge Upside

When you buy something at a 29% premium to its market price and the market gives you a 1% pat on the back as a result, who’s really the loser?

Not Gilead Sciences (GILD) today, after it agreed to pay $11.9 billion in cash for Kite Pharma (KITE), developer of a novel and experimental cancer therapy. Kite and numerous competitors have been racing to develop CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor T-cell) inhibitors. The treatment harvests immune system blood cells from cancer patients, modifies them to target cancer-spreading cells and then reinjects the weaponized T-cells into the donor.

Kite’s CAR-T treatment for advanced lymphoma is widely expected to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration by the end of November. Novartis (NVS) is highly likely to win FDA approval for a rival CAR-T treatment, initially targeting pediatric lymphomas, next month.

Gilead investors have been clamoring for an acquisition to offset fading sales of the company’s blockbuster hepatitis C treatments, acquired in a shrewd 2012 deal that paid for itself several times over.

Kite offers the same potential, as well as considerable risks. On the plus side, the results from the studies funded by Novartis and Kite have been phenomenal. Six months after reinjection with Kite’s drug, a third of the patients with an otherwise untreatable blood cancer showed no signs of it. Despite the inevitably astronomical treatment cost, these kinds of results (and the therapy’s obvious expense) will tend to muffle complaints of price gouging.

Furthermore, cancer immunotherapy remains in its infancy. The advances made to date are likely to be perfected and used against other cancers, possibly including those causing solid tumors. In contrast with its hepatitis C investment, Gilead is buying not just the (lately a little too successful) answer to a single disease but rather the chance to advance a new biotechnology with sky-high potential and broad applicability.

Of course, Kite is just one of many companies pushing along this promising path, and other drug giants are likely to make their own acquisitions targeting this technology. But there’s no growth without risk, and Gilead certainly has the means and the infrastructure to play at the highest level, and to complement Kite with smaller oncology and CAR-T investments, as it seems to be planning.

At the very least, investors now have something to focus on besides the sliding hep C sales. The deal will have no bearing on the dividend yielding almost 3% annually. I’m more encouraged than when recommending Gilead a month ago.

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