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GBT takes a page from HIV playbook as it embarks on Oxbryta launch

The sickle cell disease market and patient support around the disease are both in the nascent stages. But Global Blood Therapeutics, a pioneer in the field with recently approved Oxbryta, sees an example to emulate as it embarks on its first launch: HIV.

In sickle cell, “there’s been tremendous underinvestment—underinvestment in the science, obviously underinvestment in patient support and underinvestment in the physician research community—so we have the opportunity to come in and really build something and build it right from the ground,” CEO Ted Love said in a recent interview.

And in the pharma industry, “there are great examples … where we did it, and we did it right,” he said, pointing to HIV.

Luckily for GBT, it has “people who have done this before,” Love said—including chief commercial officer David Johnson, who worked at HIV specialist Gilead Sciences for more than 14 years.

But he’s not alone. GBT’s 10 sales managers—who came from a pool of more than 500 applicants and oversee a 65-person Oxbryta field force—have “all launched specialty drugs, they all have worked in organizations that are highly patient-focused, and they’ve all been with premier organizations, often in rare orphan disease,” Johnson said. 

They—along with GBT’s 10 patient navigators, access and reimbursement team and medical scientist team, all of which were deployed and trained at the time of Oxbryta’s Nov. 25 approval—have their work cut out for them. There’s been “virtually no education in the marketplace,” Johnson pointed out, and none of the patient support you see fielded in disease areas including HIV, cystic fibrosis, oncology and multiple sclerosis.

And GBT is looking to address both. “We’ve really taken it as a mission for our launch to invest heavily in support, and so we talk a lot about the programs we’re putting in place to help patients,” Johnson said.

On the sales side, GBT is targeting 5,500 of the top sickle-cell treaters in the United States—who collectively see about 70% of patients with the disease—with monthly visits, he said. To reach the doctors who treat the other 30% of patients, many of whom live in “out in states that don’t have a lot of sickle cell disease,” the company is fielding continuing medical education, medical affairs education events, speaker webcasts and more, as well as outreach programs for patients.

And if the company does its job well, it expects to see growth in the number of sickle cell treatment centers around the country.

Centers of excellence “have been built around innovative therapies, and since there hasn’t been much innovation in sickle cell disease, that in part accounts for the low investment,” Love said.

“We expect to be part of driving that change,” he continued, predicting that in 5 or 10 years, the number of centers would dwarf today’s 21. “It will be in part due to our contributions both financially, but also in supporting further innovation and therapies to change outcomes,” he said.