Sanofi recruits AstraZeneca research veteran to 'rejuvenate' its R&D division

Yong-Jun Liu

Sanofi ($SNY) has poached Dr. Yong-Jun Liu as its new head of research from MedImmune as it looks to beef up its early-stage pipeline and senior R&D leadership team.  

Dr. Liu--one of the world's most prolific researchers in immunology--has seen his work lead to the development of several key drug targets in the areas of allergy, immunology and oncology.

He was most recently the head of research at MedImmune, the biotech arm of Sanofi's Big Pharma rival AstraZeneca ($AZN).

Under the French drugmaker's direction he will now be responsible for leading all of Sanofi's research and will work alongside its leadership team to "build a competitive R&D organization," according to a statement from the company.

Dr. Liu, who starts on Friday, will report to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, president of Sanofi's global R&D division.

"Yong-Jun will play a pivotal role in shaping a visionary R&D strategy for Sanofi and rejuvenating the company's early-stage pipeline," said Dr. Zerhouni. "His world-class experience in immunology, oncology and translational medicine will be vital assets as Sanofi sets its sights on scientific excellence and innovation across its therapeutic areas. I am delighted to welcome Yong-Jun to the Sanofi family."

Dr. Liu has 25 years of experience in the pharma industry and at leading medical research centers. He was the founding director of the Cancer Immunology Research Institute at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He later joined the Baylor Research Institute as VP, CSO and later director of the Baylor Institute for Immunology Research, before going to MedImmune in 2014.

Sanofi has been something of a mixed bag in recent years after losing its former CEO Chris Viehbacher in 2014, with reports suggesting his forward style grated with the board. He was also said to be considering selling or splitting off a portfolio of older drugs valued at more than $8 billion.

The company has seen pretty average financials for a few years now with some big patent losses not being helped by any new major blockbusters to beef up falling sales. It's also announced a steady stream of research job cuts in recent months with more likely to come throughout the year, given that it is preparing to cut more than 500 jobs in France alone over the next three years. 

In research terms, Sanofi bagged a winner in its $20 billion Genzyme purchase in 2011 as it is helping to shore up much of its parent company's sluggish growth figures.

It has also seen positive data from its PCSK9 contender Praluent, which could bring it and partner Regeneron ($REGN) major sales in the future--although it's currently embroiled in a legal spat with Amgen ($AMGN) about the drug's patents.

New launch Toujeo, the "son of Lantus" next-gen basal insulin, is also touted as a key growth driver in the coming years.

Recent reports from the Financial Times suggest Sanofi, via Genzyme, is now looking for key biotech startups to purchase, with a particular focus on rare diseases.  

Sanofi has been steadily externalizing drug development over the past few years and last year downsized its internal oncology R&D operations. But in January it signed a deal with France's Innate Pharma to get involved in the immuno-oncology space--where it is currently far behind its rivals--while recently retooling its deal with MA-based upstart Warp Drive Bio, under the eye of Sanofi's Sunrise Initiative.

Earlier this month it also signed an initial $50 million deal with startup DiCE Molecules, a pact that falls into the company's remit of not being the innovator but rather the developer, leaving its small buys and tie-ups to come up with the big ideas.

But with Dr. Liu's appointment being heralded as a "rejuvenation" for its early-stage research, this could be yet another retooling of Sanofi's R&D, as a rejuvenation and new "visionary R&D strategy" implies its older model may be about to change. 

There is one extra element to this story: the company has not yet actually decided on where Dr. Liu will be permanently based. A Sanofi spokesperson told FierceBiotech that Dr. Liu will start by visiting all research sites, and a decision regarding where he will be based "will be made in approximately 3 months." In the meantime, the spokesperson said he will have an office in Cambridge, MA.

The Cambridge vs. France base is something of a sore spot at Sanofi. Given that he is at least initially to be based at Cambridge and not Paris, this will likely cause a few raised eyebrows given the fact that so many staff are set to be axed from its native home.

- see Sanofi's release