Like many of its peers, Sanofi has been overhauling its research operations and says that a shift from reliance on in-house projects to adopting a more open approach to R&D and embracing external partners is the way forward.

The French drugmaker's chief executive Chris Viehbacher and R&D head Elias Zerhouni laid out their vision for the firm at Sanofi's annual press conference in Paris earlier this month. Speeding up the process of research and increasing access to external innovation is very much key to that.

Mr Viehbacher said Sanofi has redesigned its R&D operations because internally "we haven't come up with all that many molecules". In the past, there has been too much attention given to "science for the sake of science", and this approach is not sustainable, he added.

 'More rigour' needed in research

He went on to say that people would be amazed at the number of scientists who do not ask themselves at the onset as to how a compound will actually work in humans. Mr Viehbacher said that "much more rigour" needs to be applied to the research process and while each project is different, Mr Viehbacher said that two-to-three years should be long enough to know if a molecule is going to make the grade.

More collaborations does not mean drastic cuts at its European research hubs in Paris and Frankfurt, but these sites "have to perform optimally", he said, telling PharmaTimes World News that the firm has realised that "major groups are not great sources of innovation."

Previously Sanofi's research centres have not communicated enough and what does work well, Mr Viehbacher believes, "is Cambridge, Massachusetts" and tapping into the talent in the area.

Payers demand 'genuine medical value'

Dr Zerhouni (pictured) said that "we are no longer in the race to find the next blockbuster", but rather the focus is on developing drugs with genuine medical value and translational feasibility. "This has to be clearly established" to payers, he noted as they "don't want marginal improvements".

When asked about the fears that governments, particularly in Europe, may not be prepared to pay for innovative drugs, Dr Zerhouni told PharmaTimes World News that every government's "number one issue" is healthcare, despite price controls, so it is up to companies to offer "integrated solutions. If not, you won't get reimbursed".

He went on to say that productivity has improved and the "smarter" Sanofi is seeing a substantial decrease in cycle time in getting drugs along the pipeline. Five new molecular entities were submitted to regulators in just the last six months of 2011 - Kynamro (mipomersen), co-developed with Isis for hypercholesterolaemia, the multiple sclerosis pill Aubagio (teriflunomide), Visamerin/Mulsevo (semuloparin) for the prevention of venous thromboembolism events in chemotherapy-treated patients, the diabetes drug Lyxumia (lixisenatide) partnered with Zealand Pharma and Zaltrap (aflibercept), in collaboration with Regeneron for second-line metastatic colorectal cancer.

This year should see filings for the MS drug Lemtrada (alemtuzumab) and further down the line Sanofi is excited about the prospects for its PCSK-9 monoclonal antibody for hypercholesterolaemia, eliglustat for Gaucher disease and a vaccine designed for dengue. Over 2012-2015, Sanofi could launch 18 products.