Sanofi loses bid to ditch U.S. suit on failed drug

Thu Mar 31, 2011 7:51am EDT

* Sanofi calls decision over Acomplia suit "disappointing"

* Company and two ex executives still face legal action

* Five former executives win dismissal of suit

By Caroline Jacobs

PARIS, March 31 (Reuters) - Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA) lost a bid to dismiss a U.S. lawsuit launched by an investor for allegedly withholding information on its flopped anti-obesity pill Acomplia, which was once seen as a potential blockbuster.

The French drugmaker said in a statement on Thursday it would "continue to defend its interests" after a U.S. court denied its motion to dismiss the suit against Sanofi itself as well as former Chief Executive Gerard Le Fur and its head of pharmaceutical operations Hanspeter Spek.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels, in a decision handed down on Wednesday, did agree to dismiss the complaint against five other former Sanofi executives.

Rimonabant, which was branded in Europe as Acomplia and in the United States as Zimulti, never made it to the world's biggest drug market and was withdrawn in Europe.

Its failure led to the departure of Le Fur, who in his previous role as research and development head had overseen the drug's development.

The investor, Carrie Smith, originally filed the lawsuit seeking class action status in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 2008.

FAILURE TO DISCLOSE

Smith alleged that she and other investors suffered damages from Sanofi's failure to disclose key data that questioned the drug's safety.

While the case was dimissed in 2009, the court a year later granted a motion by the plaintiffs to reconsider, reopening the case.

The suit's other defendants included former executives Chairman Jean-Francois Dehecq, R&D head Marc Cluzel and Finance Director Jean-Claude Leroy, U.S. Chief Medical Officer Douglas Greene and Sanofi's current Chief Medical Officer Jean-Pierre Lehner.

Sanofi said it was pleased with Daniels' decision to dismiss the suit against the five ex-executives but disappointed the judge had kept it alive against the drugmaker and its former CEO and head of pharmaceutical operations.

"Sanofi-Aventis believes its actions were appropriate and will continue to defend its interests," it said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) questioned the drug's safety in 2006 and had sought more information on its efficacy and safety in tackling obesity after turning the drug down as an anti-smoking treatment.

Concerns over possible risks of suicidal thoughts tied to the drug led an independent panel of health experts in 2007 to unanimously advise the health regulator to reject the drug for marketing approval, prompting a steep drop in Sanofi shares.

Sanofi then decided to withdraw its U.S. new drug application for rimonabant.

Under current Chief Executive Chris Viehbacher, Sanofi has branched out to make it less dependent on pure pharmaceutical business and include growth areas like consumer health, emerging markets and, most recently, rare disease through its takeover of U.S. biotech group Genzyme GENZ.O. (Editing by David Holmes)

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