Too Many Drugmakers Chase Same Targets, Sanofi's Zerhouni Says

(Bloomberg) -- Too many drug companies are crowding into the same areas to search for treatments, using up time and money that could be spent looking for more innovative approaches, according to Elias Zerhouni, Sanofi’s departing research chief.

Drugmakers need to look for new ways to gain a competitive advantage as more of them race to be first to market with similar therapies, said Zerhouni, who led the U.S. National Institutes of Health before joining Paris-based Sanofi.

“There is an enormous amount of duplication of effort” in research and development, Zerhouni, 67, said in an interview. “It’s expensive enough for one company to do one drug. Then you have 10 companies try to do the same drug and only one of them will be rewarded, or two max.”

Increasing pressure on prices and declining returns on research investment have spurred big companies to look for efficiencies in how they deploy funds and turn to increased use of data and technology to find new products. Some, such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc, have pruned back their portfolios to focus on the most promising programs, while others, such as Novartis AG, are exiting consumer health to put more resources into innovation.

Redundant Agents

In a LinkedIn post last week on immune therapies for cancer, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research President Jay Bradner highlighted a “flood of redundant checkpoint agents” and questioned whether drug companies are investing in the right way.

The industry is “capable of producing multiple successes around the same target,” Zerhouni said. “But the question is, ‘Are we going after the right targets and are we advancing the science sufficiently to address unmet needs?’”

Even as returns on research investment have diminished, scientific advances have yielded numerous breakthroughs over the past decade, Zerhouni said. Sanofi’s own studies in monkeys showed last year that three-armed, genetically engineered antibodies could provide a new way to treat or prevent HIV.

The approach of hitting multiple targets with a single treatment holds more promise than developing drugs “with three different pathways and then hoping to combine them,” he said.

Policy Interest

After stepping down at the end of June, Zerhouni said he’ll look to build on a “strange career” that has taken him from academia to government to the drug industry. He said he hopes to play a role in shaping health-care and innovation policies, but hasn’t made a decision yet on his next step.

Born and educated in Algeria, Zerhouni moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and joined the staff of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he became chairman of the radiology department. From 2002 to 2008, he led the NIH under President George W. Bush, where he oversaw the agency’s efforts to bolster defenses against potential bioterrorism attacks and instituted new rules on conflicts of interest. He joined Sanofi in 2009 as scientific adviser to the CEO and assumed his current job in 2011.

He leaves as the French drugmaker hunts for new medicines targeting everything from cancer to obesity to offset slumping demand for its top seller, the diabetes drug Lantus. He’ll be replaced by former Roche Holding AG executive John Reed.

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