* Zerhouni to take over Jan. 1, to head drugs, vaccines
* Cluzel to stay on as scientific adviser to Zerhouni
PARIS, Dec 14 (Reuters) - French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA) replaced its head of research and development with a leading academic and former top U.S. health official on Tuesday to raise its game in medical innovations.
The company said Elias Zerhouni would lead R&D of drugs and bring R&D for vaccines under his control too as Sanofi reshapes its portfolio and looks to vaccines as one area for growth to offset sales losses from mounting generic competition.
The appointment of Zerhouni, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering, comes as Sanofi battles to buy U.S. rare disease specialist Genzyme GENZ.O. [ID:nLDE6B10OK]
Chief executive Chris Viehbacher brought in Zerhouni in February 2009 as his scientific adviser, shortly after taking charge of the group which he has been transforming to include the development of drugs based on biotechnology.
Zerhouni, an academic whom Viehbacher called a “world renowned figure”, will take over from Marc Cluzel as of Jan. 1 next year, Sanofi said on Tuesday.
Cluzel, who became head of pharma R&D early in 2007 under the previous chief executive, will stay as a scientific expert to work with Zerhouni.
Cluzel has already made progress transforming a pipeline that was in crisis after the flop of anti-obesity drug Acomplia and a lack of innovative drugs to offset looming generic competition of key drugs such as blood thinner Plavix, the world’s second best selling drug after Pfizer’s (PFE.N) Lipitor. “This newly created position, will bring R&D of medicines and vaccines under one umbrella to maximise opportunities of sharing experience and expertise,” a Sanofi spokesman said.
“Cluzel’s resignation and Zerhouni’s new role are part of the further development of the company,” he said.
Analysts approved of the new appointment.
“Sanofi has been facing a weak pipeline and the appointment of somebody externally to aggressively refresh the pipeline is probably a good move,” said Michael Leacock, analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland.
Sanofi said in a statement that Zerhouni has been “instrumental in redesigning the R&D model to foster increased innovation, the first pillar of the group’s strategy”.
Zerhouni, born in 1951 in Algeria, is professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital in the United States. He received the prestigious Legion of Honor medal from the French National Order in 2008.
He used to be the director of the National Institutes of Health, the medical research agency of the United States and part of the U.S. department of Health and Human Services.
Sanofi is trying to buy U.S. biotech Genzyme GENZ.O in a $18.5 billion tender offer that it prolonged on Monday. [ID:nLDE69R0ZX]
Buying Genzyme, which has turned down Sanofi’s offer, would give Sanofi a new and high-margin growth area of rare diseases as mounting generic competition will take out roughly a third of Sanofi’s 2008 sales base by 2013.
Sanofi shares were up 0.7 percent at 49.34 euros at 1230 GMT.
Reporting by Caroline Jacobs; Editing by David Holmes and Andrew Callus