Sanofi CEO fires surprise torpedo at Alzheimer's drug research

Count Sanofi ($SNY) out of the wild chase to develop Alzheimer's drugs, at least while the best line of attack against the memory-robbing disease remains unclear. Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher revealed his desire to avoid costly clinical trials for AD drugs in an interview with Bloomberg, hinting that the passionate pursuit of such therapies lacks a deep understanding of disease biology.

Alzheimer's disease offers one of the most lucrative markets in the pharma business, with one analyst estimating the opportunity to be $20 billion, but the vast majority of past attempts to develop new AD drugs have ended in defeat. Sanofi has stayed out of the headlines for major AD drug failures lately, with Pfizer ($PFE) and Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) bapineuzumab as well as Eli Lilly's ($LLY) solanezumab dominating AD news last year with their respective late-stage disasters. Nevertheless, all three of those companies have kept firm footings in the Alzheimer's field, where Viehbacher signals that drug hunting isn't so good right now.

"I think we have to do a lot more basic science work to understand what's going on," Viehbacher said in an interview with Bloomberg at an industry event in San Diego. "We really, at best, partially understand the cause of the disease. It's hard to come up with meaningful targets."

Alzheimer's, which affects more than 5 million Americans, sets in over time and is marked by plaques that accumulate in the brain. Many researchers have theorized that amyloid-targeting therapies such as Lilly's solanezumab could prove effective if given to patients before the dementia advances too far for the drugs to work. Both Roche ($RHHBY) and Lilly have advanced research in preventive therapies, hoping that their programs could reverse the trend of disappointments in the field.

Nevertheless, these and other AD programs carry some of the longest odds in the pharma industry. And Sanofi intends to roll the dice in different areas such as PCSK9 and rare genetic diseases where its scientists believe the company has a better shot to succeed. Under Sanofi's research czar, Elias Zerhouni, the company has stressed strict adherence to a translational research framework where drug candidates only advance after the researchers have confirmed the mechanism in rigorous preclinical work.

Alzheimer's disease drugs might not fit this R&D model right now. Yet health officials have clamored for better AD treatments, and Sanofi's rivals could manage to create a blockbuster from a drug that shows even a modicum of benefit for patients.

- check out Bloomberg's article

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