Sanofi hires ex-Roche executive John Reed to replace retiring Elias Zerhouni as R&D chief

John Reed
Former Roche research leader John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., will take charge of Sanofi’s pipeline as head of global R&D. (Image: Roche)

Sanofi is changing its head of global R&D. Elias Zerhouni, M.D., is to retire from the position at the end of June, leaving former Roche research leader John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., to take charge of Sanofi’s pipeline.

Reed left Roche and returned to the U.S. from Switzerland around the start of the month for personal reasons. His stay outside of Big Pharma R&D—and Europe—will be very short, though. Reed’s first day at Sanofi is April 30. That gives Reed two months to learn the ropes before Zerhouni retires at the end of June. Reed will take up his new position, working out of Paris, France, on July 1.

The concurrent timing of Zerhouni’s departure and the availability of Reed is fortuitous for Sanofi. But the French pharma said it is a coincidence, stating “Elias' retirement is not prompted [by Reed’s availability], it was well prepared.” Zerhouni is 67 years old.

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Reed arrives at Sanofi with his legacy at Roche still in flux. Reed received credit for stabilizing Roche pharma research and early development (pRED) and ending the period of continual reorganization that preceded his arrival. Combined with heavy investment in in-house R&D, this stability has helped pRED build a pipeline with some eye-catching prospects, such as T-cell bispecific CEA-TCB. But Reed’s efforts are yet to translate into successful commercial products.

Zerhouni will depart with a similarly uncertain legacy. The successes Sanofi enjoyed over Zerhouni’s seven years leading Sanofi’s R&D team largely originated at external partners or acquired businesses, notably Regeneron and Genzyme. But over the past 12 months Sanofi has had the confidence to step up its reliance on internal R&D, ending its decade-long antibody alliance with Regeneron and setting the goal of creating a portfolio skewed toward in-house candidates. 

As with Reed at Roche, only time will tell how strong a position Zerhouni leaves Sanofi in. Zerhouni can point to a newfound strength in antibody development and promising internally-developed drugs in the clinic as signs that he leaves Sanofi’s R&D group in a better state than he found it. 

RELATED: Roche promotes Pao to replace departing pRED head Reed

Responsibility for finishing what Zerhouni started will fall on Reed. Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt, M.D., thinks the new hire is up to the job.

“John is an accomplished and widely recognized physician-scientist with a brilliant academic track record," Brandicourt said in a statement. “He is experienced in driving R&D productivity, building high-performing teams and integrating biotech companies to provide new technology platforms.”

Brandicourt’s reference to the integration of technology platforms reflects a recent shift in Sanofi’s thinking. Under the Zerhouni-Chris Viehbacher leadership axis, Sanofi opted against buying platform biotechs, reasoning it risked ruining what made them special. But the success of its €3.9 billion ($4.8 billion) takeover of Ablynx partly rests on the continued productivity of the acquired antibody platform. Part of Reed’s job will be to keep the golden goose alive.

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