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Timelines: 1989

Prev : Next Icos Corporation


George Rathmann’s Biotech Adventures, Act II

After resigning as CEO of Amgen, George Rathmann teams up with Seattle immunologists Robert Nowinski and Christopher Henney to establish Icos Corporation in the Emerald City. Nowinski founded Genetic Systems in Seattle in 1981; Henney co-founded Immunex the same year, also in Seattle, with Steven Gillis. Bill Gates is an early investor in Icos, and, for a time prior to the firm’s IPO in 1991, the largest shareholder, holding 10% of the company’s stock.

The name Icos comes from icosahedron, a twenty-sided polygon – a shape common to many viruses. The founders suspect viruses as the root causes of many cases of inflammatory disorders. The company’s initial goal is to develop antiviral treatments for inflammation. Icos’ first (and only) product, however, is the hugely successful phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor, tadafil, marketed under the brand name Cilalis®. PDE5 is an enzyme that degrades cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP). cGMP is a vasodilator that increases blood flow. The drug is originally developed in partnership with Glaxo Wellcome as a treatment for cardiovascular disease, but the larger corporation declines to renew the collaboration in 1998.

When the introduction of another PDE5 inhibitor, Pfizer’s Viagra® (sildenafil), creates an enormous commercial splash in the same year, Icos draws up an agreement with Eli Lilly & Co. to position tadafil in the erectile dysfunction market. When the drug is approved in Europe in 2002 and the U. S. in 2003, it brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year, and enable Icos to turn its first profit in 2006. The following year, Icos is fully acquired by Eli Lilly & Co. 

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