Sanofi's Zerhouni rewrites the company playbook on R&D

Few people understand the grim odds involved in drug research better than the top executive team at Sanofi. CEO Chris Viehbacher has been a veritable prophet of change, preaching in speeches all over the world that Big Pharma's isolated R&D empires don't deliver nearly the number of new drugs needed to justify their budgets. And when ex-NIH chief Elias Zerhouni was brought in to run the R&D business 18 months ago, he was given a mandate for the revival of productivity.

Forbes' Matthew Herper is giving Zerhouni a big stage to expound on the new principles involving research and development at Sanofi ($SNY). As Zerhouni tells the story, Sanofi is essentially starting over on the R&D side, picking up the pieces on the translational side of research: figuring out how to take something truly innovative in the lab and turn it into a new product.

"My fundamental understanding of what's ailing R&D is the fact that true translational medicine is not practiced," Zerhouni tells Herper. "R&D in pharma has been isolating itself for 20 years, thinking that animal models would be enough and highly predictive, and I think I want to just bring back the discipline of outstanding translational science, which means understand the disease in humans before I even touch a patient."

That's the approach that has helped guide Sanofi's work on PCSK9, a promising field in which several developers see big commercial opportunities in reducing LDL and better balancing an individual's cholesterol. And it's helped the company to regroup on its big failure--iniparib, the PARP inhibitor that wasn't, picked up in a $500 million deal for BiPar Sciences--to find out what went wrong and how the drug can be repurposed for an effective use.

The story, though, begs the question of just how much time Sanofi R&D will be given to start delivering. As the article notes, the company has yet to deliver any big new approvals since Viehbacher's arrival. And while the market has greeted Sanofi's willingness to rewrite the playbook on R&D as a breath of fresh air, candor is ultimately no substitute for success.

- here's the article

Special Reports: Sanofi - The Biggest R&D Spenders In Biopharma | Christopher Viehbacher - The 25 most influential people in biopharma today

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