Sanofi invests $340M in Belgium biologics unit

Laboratory life science work

Sanofi ($SNY) has invested €300 million ($340 million) to expand its biologics site in Geel, Belgium, to help shore up the French drugmaker’s pipeline of monoclonal antibodies.

The money will go toward expanding manufacturing and commercial capabilities at the European site and will include the development of new labs focused on quality control and manufacturing sciences.

“This investment not only strengthens our goal of becoming a leader in biologics but represents our focus on patients’ needs,” said Philippe Luscan, executive VP of global industrial affairs and president of Sanofi in France.

“We have a robust development pipeline of biological molecules, including monoclonal antibodies […] This is an exciting opportunity for our site in Geel and we are very pleased with the support we received from the Government of Flanders, the Flanders Investment and Trade and the Flanders Entrepreneurship agency.”

Sanofi and its biologics arm Genzyme have already invested around €600 million ($682 million) in the Geel site, which began industrial biotech activities back in 2001.

It’s currently responsible for the global production of a protein therapy for Pompe disease, a rare, genetic muscular disease that is often fatal, and originally developed by Genzyme. The protein therapy Lumizyme/Myozyme (alglucosidase alfa) is produced using cell cultures in large bioreactors, followed by a purification process.

But now the company wants to expand the site to do more than just a single protein therapy and focus more on new and developing biologics.

Around 70% of its pipeline is biologics with 40% being monoclonal antibodies, according to the drugmaker. This includes potential blockbuster sarilumab, an anti-IL6R mAb therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, which is filed with the FDA and recently bested Humira in a head-to-head study.

Sanofi said as part of the investment, it also intends to recruit “highly-skilled biotechnology professionals” to fulfil a range of job functions. Reports suggest there could be an extra 100 roles added to the site. The French drugmaker said it aims to “launch several biologics” in the upcoming years, but did not go into detail about what therapy areas they will cover.

This forms part of the company’s new strategy to refocus the company’s research and global positioning, after it warned last year that profits will likely stay flat until 2017/2018. Its CEO Olivier Brandicourt said during a financial meeting in November last year that: “If we want to win, we need to be more focused on businesses where we have or where we can build a competitive position.”

Sanofi has been historically strong in diabetes, CV meds, vaccines, and in emerging markets--but has not been as big in marketing biologics and mAbs, especially in cancer. Its prostate cancer chemotherapy Jevtana and Regeneron-partnered angiogenesis inhibitor Zaltrap for colorectal cancer are the two mainstay meds from its newer oncology pipeline, although both only command middling sales.

But in Jan, it signed two biotech deals worth potentially €1.2 billion with Warp Drive Bio, a privately-held biotech company, and Marseille-based Innate Pharma, which has seen it return to cancer research after seemingly cutting down on its oncology R&D last year.

Speaking to the Financial Times after the deals were made, Brandicourt admitted the company had “made a series of mis-steps” that had left it absent from the major immuno-oncology market which is being led by Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHBBY). Brandicourt admitted the company would not become a leader in the field, but added: “We think we can leapfrog and catch up very quickly,” with these deals set to help the drugmaker achieve this.

There are a few cancer drugs in its midstage pipeline, including satuximab, an anti-CD38 naked mAb, which is in Phase II testing for multiple myeloma, and a Phase I PD-1 cancer checkpoint inhibitor SAR439684, which is also being developed alongside Regeneron.

Sanofi is also rumored to be chasing cancer biotech Medivation ($MDVN), the U.S. rights holder of prostate cancer treatment Xtandi, to help further shore up its oncology and mAb pipeline.

-check out Sanofi’s release
-have a look at the company’s R&D portfolio