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Sanofi’s story needs to be ‘better told,’ new CEO says

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson, newly on the job after taking over from Olivier Brandicourt last month, is still acquainting himself with the French drugmaker. But the former Novartis executive emphasized to reporters Tuesday he views his job as helping the company be better at picking its drug development shots.

“It’s clear when I talk to people inside and outside the company [that] we can be more specific about what excites us in the pipeline,” said Hudson.

“It’s a story that needs to be better told. I’ll play a big part of that, but so will our R&D leaders.”

For years a diabetes company first, Sanofi has more recently sought to establish itself as a larger player in cancer, immunology and rare blood disorders like hemophilia. Acquisitions of Bioverativ and Ablynx last year will help in the latter category, while the pharma’s drug Dupixent is the centerpiece of its renewed efforts in immunology.

Hudson, who before joining Sanofi led Novartis’ pharmaceuticals division, will be tasked with seeing that vision through, alongside an executive team that now includes former Roche R&D leader John Reed.

In some respects, the process has already begun. This year, Sanofi stopped work on nearly 40 drug projects, saying it would focus on accelerating a slate of experimental drugs it viewed as more promising.

Prioritizing research is a goal being chased by many drugmakers, not just Sanofi. Companies across the industry are working to slim down a big pharma model that was previously based on spanning many markets. AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Takeda have all recently restructured, to varying degrees.

Sanofi’s challenge will be tougher than some, however.

In diabetes, Sanofi has struggled alongside competitors Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk as insurers successfully demanded greater discounts in exchange for coverage. Partly as a result, U.S. sales of Sanofi’s diabetes products declined nearly 18% year over year in the three months from April to June, weighing on the company’s growth elsewhere.

Falling net prices haven’t taken public or political pressure off the three drugmakers either, as all continue to face criticism in the U.S. over their products’ prices. Hudson said Tuesday he believes Sanofi has “made strides” and worked to make the out-of-pocket impact to patients “manageable.”

While the drugmaker has advanced a long-acting GLP-1 agonist, Sanofi trails Novo and Lilly in diabetes drug markets outside of insulin. And a recent decision to exit a development partnership with Lexicon Pharmaceuticals doesn’t speak well to its past partnering efforts in the space.

In oncology and blood diseases, Sanofi will be hard-pressed to stay competitive. The company largely missed the first wave of immuno-oncology development, and its newly acquired hemophilia drugs are under threat from Roche’s Hemlibra as well as advancing gene therapies from BioMarin, Spark Therapeutics and Sangamo Therapeutics.

This July, Sanofi took a $2 billion impairment charge on Eloctate, a hemophilia medicine brought in through its $11.6 billion Bioverativ deal 18 months prior.

Asked on his views of gene therapy, Hudson acknowledged the promise of potentially one-time treatments, and said Sanofi’s existing presence would enable it to better understand opportunities that might emerge.

“These are absolutely critical breakthrough transformations,” he said. “They are the bar we should set for ourselves.”

Near term, Sanofi hopes to win U.S. approval for a multiple myeloma drug called isatuximab as well as for fitusiran, an RNAi anti-thrombin medicine it in-licensed from Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Three other rare disease drugs could be submitted for regulatory OK next year as well.

Overall, Sanofi placed 12th in a recent ranking by Cowen, an investment bank, of large pharmaceutical company pipelines.

Dupixent, a drug developed in partnership with Regeneron, will play a large role in seeing Sanofi through as it works to improve that position.

Sales are now on pace to annualize at nearly $2 billion, helped by expanded approvals in asthma and in adolescent atopic dermatitis.

Hudson’s background running Novartis’ drugs division could be an advantage in ensuring that launch, and others, continue to gather momentum. While at the Swiss drugmaker, the CEO reportedly played a large role in bolstering the commercial success of Entresto, a heart medicine that’s become a key drug for Novartis.

Leading Novartis’ pharma unit is one of the higher profile positions in the industry. But the opportunity to head Sanofi was too much to pass up for Hudson.

“Positions like this don’t come along that often,” he said, adding that he viewed Sanofi as a company “close to greatness” but with “some work to do to close that gap.”