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Ipsen sets up shop in Cambridge

Claude Bertrand, Ipsen’s chief scientific officer, says the firm hopes to grow in Cambridge.

Claude Bertrand, Ipsen’s chief scientific officer, says the firm hopes to grow in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE — The latest European biopharmaceutical company to plant its flag in Massachusetts has three drugs on the US market and collaborates with top Boston academic and hospital researchers. But it has kept a low profile outside of the life sciences world.

That may be changing. Ipsen SA — a mid-sized French company developing medicines to treat cancers and endocrine and neuromuscular disorders — on Wednesday opened a research and development center in Kendall Square. The site, at 650 East Kendall St., is next to the headquarters of Genzyme, owned by fellow French drug maker Sanofi SA.

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Ipsen joins other larger European pharmaceutical companies, such as Novartis AG of Switzerland, Shire plc of Ireland, and AstraZeneca plc of England, that have set up shop in the Boston area over the past decade.

Executives from Ipsen believe there is plenty of room to grow in the US market, which currently accounts for less than 5 percent of the company’s $1.6 billion in annual sales globally. Its largest markets are in France, China, and Russia.

“Not being in the US is a big handicap,” Ipsen chief executive Marc de Garidel said on a visit to the new research subsidiary, which is incorporated as Ipsen Bioscience Inc. “The US is the center of innovation in science. This is where most of the new discoveries are taking place. And you can’t ignore the fact that the US is 34 percent of the world market” for prescription drugs.

Initially, the Ipsen research site will have about 60 research and clinical employees, most of whom transferred from a smaller affiliate in Milford on property recently sold to health care company Baxter International Inc. Claude Bertrand, Ipsen’s chief scientific officer, said his Paris-based company plans to add about 20 employees over the next six months,

“The idea is to be fully operational by the end of the year,” Bertrand said.

Ipsen, which also has about 100 workers at its US commercial hub in Basking Ridge, N.J., plans to double its staff there if the company wins Food and Drug Administration approval next year to sell Somatuline, a drug to treat gastrointestinal and pancreatic tumors.

An article published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded the drug prolonged “progression-free survival” for more than 65 percent of patients who took it in a late-stage clinical trial conducted at 48 sites in 14 countries.

Somatuline is already approved by the FDA to treat a type of growth deficiency.

Ipsen has two other drugs on the US market: the wrinkle treatment Dysport, which competes with Botox; and Increlex, a drug that treats another form of growth deficiency in children. Ipsen sells other medicines in Europe, including a prostate cancer treatment.

In the Boston area, Ipsen has active research collaborations with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. It also licenses peptides — chains of amino acid molecules used in drug development — to biotechs Radius Health Inc. and Rhythm Pharmaceuticals.

Bertrand said the Cambridge research center will be Ipsen’s chief site for the development of drugs using peptides, while another site in Oxford, England, will focus on drugs using toxins. Ipsen’s research and development headquarters will remain in Les Ulis, France, a suburb southwest of Paris.

Ipsen, founded in 1929, currently has a budget of about $800 million to scout for acquisitions over the next three years, de Garidel said. But unlike its French neighbor Sanofi, which paid $20.1 billion for Genzyme, Massachusetts’s largest biotechnology company, Ipsen is likely to look for smaller startups with experimental drugs in late stages of development, he said.

Publicly traded on European markets, Ipsen has some US institutional investors. But 57 percent of its stock is owned by members of the founding Beaufour family.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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