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Vitry, a giant Sanofi site in the shape of a bet on the future

A former centenary chemical site converted at great expense in biotechnology in recent years, Sanofi's vast platform in Vitry-sur-Seine remains a bet on the future for the French pharmaceutical giant, depending in particular on the take-off of its activities in immuno -oncology.

In front of this site of 23 hectares grumbles a site of demolition of old warehouses, within the framework of the works of the Greater Paris Express.

RER C trains run between the construction site and the factory, while in the distance roars the A86.

Behind the airports of "Biolaunch", the new biotechnological unit of the site, reigns conversely a studious quietude. A bioreactor purrs, rocking 24h on 24 animal cells in its steel tank to make monoclonal antibodies, a class of therapeutic proteins.

"From a few hundred grams to a few kilos" only of these proteins are thus extracted after 10 to 15 days, a volume that will be slightly reduced after various purification steps, explains to AFP Thierry Ziegler, head of biopharmaceutical development in Vitry.

With the upstream and downstream stages of production, "a total of five to six weeks are required to obtain a clinical or commercial lot" of an organic product, Loïc Millot, production manager of the site.


- Production still limited -
But before reaching this point, 10 has to be counted on 15 years of development for a biomedicine. "In the organic sector, the proximity between the people who define the process and those who produce it is essential ... The transfer of a process to a quality product on a large scale is very complicated," says Philippe Luscan, responsible of the Group's industrial operations.

The Biolaunch has been designed to address this issue, with its two nested units, one dedicated to development and the other to bioproduction. Sanofi has invested 250 million euros in addition to 100 million euros for site remediation and decontamination work since 2008.

The bioproduction unit, which started in 2012, is now almost ready to run at full speed. Its capacity should even increase by 30% next year with the arrival of a fourth large bioreactor.

However for the time being, only 30% of the bioproduction capacities are used. "We are making small quantities because we are still in the launch phase," justifies Robert Feling, the director of the Vitry platform.

Sanofi has positioned this biotechnology "hub" in immuno-oncology in particular, a therapeutic area that it considers a priority, but where it is still rarely present.

The group tried unsuccessfully last year to seize an American biotech specialist in the sector, Medivation, finally bought out by the American Pfizer. Since then, his official strategy in cancer is to bet on his own strength.

Four Sanofi biological anti-cancer drugs are currently being developed in Vitry, but only one of them, isatuximab, is at an advanced clinical trial stage (Phase III).

The site also manufactures monoclonal antibodies to Praluent, a Sanofi anticholesterol already marketed. However, its sales are far from the level of expectations of the group at the moment.


- Towards a French "Bio-Academy"? -
Another part of the site, employing a total of 1.800 employees, including 1.300 in research and development, is still developing and producing anticancer drugs of chemical origin. The retention of this know-how will make it possible to develop drugs combining chemical and biological molecules, according to Feling.

Sanofi has three other biotech hubs in Frankfurt (western Germany) in insulin, near Boston (eastern United States) in rare diseases and near Lyon in vaccines.

To ensure future large volumes, it also has another biotechnology plant in Geel, Belgium. It has also just launched in Switzerland a joint bioproduction plant with subcontractor Lonza, to be operational in 2020.

On this date, Sanofi will be "in the top 5 of the world's bioproduction capacities", says Luscan.

"Looking at the future, we have needs in all the biotechnology professions (...) Since training in these professions is fragmented in France, we are thinking about how we could organize a structured course," he adds, confident to have "discussed" with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who discreetly visited the Biolaunch in July.

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