CAMBRIGE, Mass. ( TheStreet) -- Vertex Pharmaceuticals ( VRTX) shares are soaring 60% to $84.87 Friday morning following an announcement last night that its cystic fibrosis drug Kalydeco combined with an experimental drug VX-661 significantly improved the lung function of patients in a mid-stage clinical trial. Analysts are rushing to upgrade and slap triple-digit price targets on Vertex because it now appears more likely that the company's cystic fibrosis drug franchise will prove effective for a large swath of the 70,000 people with the genetic lung disease worldwide. Peak sales could easily top $5-6 billion. Last May, when Vertex released interim results from its combination therapy for cystic fibrosis, I wrote a column explaining why investors should look at Vertex as the next Gilead Sciences ( GILD). Like Gilead dominates HIV therapy (and perhaps hepatitis C therapy soon), Vertex will now dominate cystic fibrosis. I've reprinted this column below because the "Vertex is the next Gilead" thesis is now stronger than ever. Originally published on May 7. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is the next Gilead Sciences. You think I'm reaching? Okay, then Vertex is the next Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Either way, the big move higher in Vertex's stock price Monday, spurred by the release of strong cystic fibrosis data, is totally justified and likely undervalues the company going forward. Vertex shares rose $20.71, or 55%, to $58.12 Monday following the announcement that two drugs -- the experimental VX-809 and currently marketed Kalydeco -- significantly improved lung function in patients with the most common genetic mutation causing cystic fibrosis. Monday's data were the result of an interim analysis from a relatively small number of patients, so without a doubt, caution is warranted and the benefit seen from the two-drug therapy must be maintained and confirmed in a larger, pivotal trial. But if we assume VX-809 and Kalydeco are approved, the revenue numbers for Vertex get very, very large: $4 billion a year in peak cystic fibrosis sales is a floor. The company's cystic fibrosis drugs could top $6-7 billion a year, easily. There are 70,000 cystic fibrosis patients worldwide and Vertex could easily treat more than half of them with Kalydeco or the VX-809-Kalydeco combination. A year of Kalydeco therapy today costs $294,000 -- not uncommon for orphan disease pricing. Vertex may cut the price of the two-drug regimen but even if you assume $200,000 per year, the sales potential is enormous.
Vertex cystic fibrosis revenue of $6-7 billion year is equal to what Gilead generates in revenue every year from is antiviral product sales, mostly its dominant HIV drugs. Comparing Vertex to Gilead is very appropriate because their respective revenue streams are sticky, like an annuity delivered every year without fail. Think about it, a cystic fibrosis patient with the f508del mutation will start therapy on Vertex's VX-809 and Kalydeco as a child and will continue on therapy for their rest of their life. Vertex has no competition on the near horizon and its patents extend out to 2027. This is exactly how Gilead grew to be a monster stock in biotech. Patients take Gilead's Truvada or Atripla to keep the virus in check and they continue taking these drugs day after day, year after year. If anything, Gilead's position is a bit more tenuous compared to Vertex because competitive HIV drugs from other companies exist and Gilead's patent position is weaker. With Monday's big stock surge, Vertex carries a market cap of $11.5 billion, still well below Gilead even if you subtract the value attached to its recent push into hepatitis C. If you think comparing Vertex to Gilead isn't appropriate, then how about Alexion and its orphan disease drug Soliris, which is currently on a $1 billion sales run rate and growing like gangbusters. Alexion is a $17 billion company, but Vertex is only worth $11.5 billion? These market value comparisons are imprecise, granted, but you get the idea. Don't under-estimate the sheer size of Vertex's revenue potential in cystic fibrosis or its durability.
I'm not even considering Vertex's still very much alive hepatitis C business, either. This is why investors have come to love and covet the stock of companies developing truly effective therapies for rare, genetic diseases. Big Pharma loves rare disease companies, too. Sanofi ( SNY) bought Genzyme for $20 billion, remember? It's hard to imagine a company like Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) not running the numbers right now on buying Vertex. Speculating on a takeout is not reason enough to own a stock, but in the case of Vertex, the huge commercial potential for its cystic fibrosis business is compelling even without an acquisition. --Written by Adam Feuerstein in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Adam Feuerstein. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/adamfeuerstein. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.