At its eagerly-anticipated R&D meeting in Paris, Sanofi-Aventis’ head of research has told PharmaTimes World News that biotechnology is an area that the firm is still a little weak in but “small molecules will remain the cornerstone of our growth”.

Marc Clouzel, senior vice president of science and medical affairs, was speaking at the meeting which saw the French drugmaker highlight some of the 48 projects the firm has in Phase IIb/III which it hopes could led to 31 submissions by the end of 2010, 10 of which might be potential blockbusters. He noted that the company’s portfolio is maturing and the compounds coming through are in the four areas where Sanofi is a market leader – cardiometabolism, central nervous system, vaccines and oncology – and where its expertise should reduce risk.

Prominent among these new compounds are a successor to the firm’s antithrombotic blockbuster Lovenox (enoxaparin) and a replacement for its Stilnox/Ambien (zolpidem) sleeping pill franchise, eplivanserin. Details of the pipeline will follow shortly on PharmaTimes World News.

However Dr Cluzel acknowledged that in biotechnology, “we have had a weakness” and there is a need to supplement the pipeline with some new external projects. This could involve the acquisition of products or even an entire company, and Sanofi’s financial position would allow it to do something but it needs to improve the French firm’s manufacturing capacity. “Also “you need strong discovery,” he said, “and you can’t have everything in your own company”.

Dr Cluzel went on to note that Sanofi has also been late in developing antibodies but told PharmaTimes World News that “we are not a biotechnology company and we will not become one”. Small molecules are its bread and butter and the firm’s task is to use the synergies between the latter, biotherapeutics and vaccines.

Sanofi has been going through a tough time of late and the rejection by the a US Food and Drug Administration panel of its obesity drug Acomplia (rimonabant) in June after it was linked to suicidal thoughts and depression has badly hurt its share price. Dr Cluzel noted that it is getting harder to get approvals from the agency but that situation affects every company and although the USA “has always been open to innovation,” the situation will never return to the heights of the 1990s when many more new treatments were getting to the market.

After 2012, a number of Sanofi’s drugs will have lost patent protection. Ambien sales have started to be battered by generic competition and Lovenox plus the blockbuster blood-thinner Plavix (clopidogrel) will have succumbed. Dr Cluzel spoke of the necessity “to fuel the machine” before then but analysts have responded negatively to the presentation.

In a research note, Morgan Stanley’s Andrew Baum said that the company's pipeline looked credible but not of the compounds will significantly contribute to earnings until 2012 and that any short-term gains would more likely have to come from cost savings. Other analysts were more scathing and investors also appeared to be non-plussed as the shares ended the day down 2.3% at 60.08 euros. By Kevin Grogan in Paris