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Zerhouni's progress report

Two years in: What Zerhouni expects from Sanofi's transformed R&D by 2016

When Elias Zerhouni joined Sanofi as the head of R&D in January 2011, the former NIH director decided the pharma's pipeline needed to be pruned and refocused around disease pathways. Two years into the job, Zerhouni's late-stage housecleaning is evident, but the bigger changes to the pharma's drug discovery strategy will take three to five more years to bear fruit.

Sanofi is the product of dozens of small and large mergers, including a merger encouraged by the French government between Aventis S.A. and Sanofi-Synthelabo S.A. in 2004. These resulted in an amalgam of redundant and sometimes antiquated R&D capabilities spread across 25 facilities.

Job one thus was to reduce the redundancies and eliminate R&D programs and technologies that weren't going to generate value.

Zerhouni has centralized Sanofi's R&D to four hubs and lopped off programs he didn't think would create value, while placing more emphasis on novel targets that address different pathways than existing marketed drugs.

His main focus has been to modernize Sanofi's R&D and look for new targets and therapeutics in a way that reflects current thinking about disease pathways.

"We've made great progress in basic research in disease biology, human genomics and proteomics, yet this seemed not to translate into new therapies at Sanofi," he told BioCentury.

Zerhouni hopes his appointment of seven new therapeutic area heads, along with a slew of discovery partnerships focused on translational research, will help solve this problem.

Additionally, according to Zerhouni, Sanofi's 2011 acquisition of Genzyme Corp. helped to balance out the pharma's small molecule-heavy pipeline with biologics. And going forward, Genzyme will be responsible for Sanofi's Orphan and multiple sclerosis pipeline.

Zerhouni expects the real fruits of his labor will not be obvious for a few more years. "By 2016, we will start to see tremendous change in R&D at Sanofi," he told BioCentury.

Shifting Sanofi

Zerhouni is drawing on his experience at NIH and in academia to rebuild Sanofi's R&D business.

During 1996-2002, Zerhouni served as chair of the department of radiology and radiological services,

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