UPDATED: Reed relinquishes R&D reins at Sanofi for J&J role

Sanofi's head of global R&D John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., has departed for a spot at Johnson & Johnson, where he'll serve as executive vice president of pharmaceutical R&D.

Reed will step into his new role at J&J on April 3, taking the reins from Executive Vice President and Chief External Innovation and Medical Safety Officer William Hait, M.D., Ph.D., who has served as interim R&D head since last August.  

Sanofi announced Reed's exit on the morning of Feb. 13 in a release that did not mention his new role at the rival Big Pharma, stating only that he was leaving to “pursue a new opportunity."

For nearly five years, Reed, who served in Sanofi's top R&D role, “laid the foundation for the company’s R&D transformation” and helped reshape its discovery and development by “focusing efforts on first and best-in-class medicines," according to the Sanofi press release.

The leader's departure has left the French drugmaker with an interim leader while it races to find a full-time replacement.  

Reed joined Sanofi in 2018 in a more orderly transition, arriving at the company two months before his predecessor, Elias Zerhouni, M.D., retired. This time around, Sanofi is losing its R&D chief before lining up a successor. Dietmar Berger, M.D., Ph.D., who joined Sanofi as chief medical officer and global head of development in 2019, will fill Reed’s role on an interim basis until an internal and external search finds a replacement.

Big Pharma R&D chiefs typically depart with their legacies still in flux because the length of drug development timelines means the full implications of their actions only become clear years later. That is true to a large extent for Reed, but some things are already clear. Notably, Sanofi has largely missed out on the COVID-19 gold rush. 

The company fell behind the mRNA front-runners as it focused on its established recombinant protein platform and underestimated how quickly its rivals could move, forecasting in early 2020 that it would take three to four years to deliver a licensed vaccine. The French drugmaker tried to accelerate later in the first year of the pandemic, including by getting into mRNA, but by then its rivals had raced ahead. 

Even so, the pandemic helped reshape Sanofi’s R&D priorities. In 2021, Sanofi bought Translate Bio, its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine partner, for $3.2 billion and put the emerging modality at the heart of its plans. Earlier that year, Sanofi struck a $160 million buyout focused on using mRNA to reprogram immune cells inside the human body. Amunix, Origimm and Kiadis also became part of Sanofi during Reed’s tenure. 

The payoff, if any, from most of the deals is years down the line. Sanofi’s $3.7 billion takeover of Principia Biopharma, which happened shortly after Reed’s appointment, could have a nearer-term impact. Phase 3 trials of two Principia candidates, tolebrutinib and rilzabrutinib, are scheduled (PDF) for the next 15 months. The schedule also featured 27 phase 1/2 readouts of candidates that moved into and through early-stage clinical development on Reed’s watch.

Editor's note: This article was updated at 5:30 p.m. ET to include information about Reed's upcoming position at J&J.