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 “Our approach to rare diseases is scalable,” says David Meeker, executive vice president and head of Sanofi Genzyme.
“Our approach to rare diseases is scalable,” says David Meeker, executive vice president and head of Sanofi Genzyme.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

CAMBRIDGE — Sanofi SA plans to expand its former Genzyme division here even as the French drugmaker cuts jobs globally, according to a senior executive.

Sanofi Genzyme, as the business is now called, will focus on specialty care, treatments targeting relatively small patient populations with diseases caused by genetic mutations. Such drugs are typically harder to develop and are priced substantially higher than the mass-market primary care medicines for more common conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol.

Genzyme Corp., acquired by Sanofi SA in 2011, was a pioneer in treatments for rare genetic disorders such as Gaucher and Fabry diseases. Sanofi Genzyme has also become a growing player in the market for drugs treating multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder.

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Now the division is expanding further. Under a reorganization unveiled in July by Sanofi’s new chief executive, Olivier Brandicourt, cancer and immunology drug programs housed in other Sanofi business units were moved under the Sanofi Genzyme umbrella.

“Our approach to rare diseases is scalable,” Sanofi executive vice president David Meeker, who heads Sanofi Genzyme, said in an interview in his Kendall Square office this week. “The move to specialty care is being driven by the science. As you understand the underlying biology of diseases better, it allow you to develop more specific therapies.”

The former Genzyme’s place within Sanofi has been a subject of constant speculation in the Massachusetts life sciences cluster since the $20.1 billion buyout five years ago. Brandicourt’s predecessor, Christopher Viehbacher, embraced the patient focus and entrepreneurial culture of Genzyme and divided his time between Cambridge and Sanofi’s headquarters in Paris.

When he was fired in late 2014, there were fears locally that Genzyme’s role would be diminished. The new Sanofi Genzyme name wasn’t popular among some current and former Genzyme employees. And when the parent company confirmed last month that its worldwide restructuring would eliminate about 36 research and development jobs in Massachusetts, there were fears that more cuts were coming.

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Meeker, however, said the company expects to expand over the next two years in Massachusetts, where it now employs more than 5,000 workers. He said the growth should come not only at Sanofi Genzyme but at the research labs in Cambridge, Waltham, and Framingham, and the manufacturing plants in Boston and Framingham that support the specialty care division.

He also defended the division’s blended moniker, saying it emphasized the ongoing integration with Sanofi while preserving the Genzyme brand and legacy.

Sanofi Genzyme itself will be expanding globally. The division now has operations worldwide and partnerships with a trio of biotech companies — Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y., and two Cambridge companies, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Voyager Therapeutics Inc. — that could bring new drugs into its portfolio over the next decade.

“Over time, there will be an expansion of research and development,” Meeker said. “And the net [impact] for Sanofi Genzyme will be an increase of jobs over time.”

But he said certain jobs could also be cut in functions the division is deemphasizing as part of normal business operations.

For instance, most of the three dozen jobs eliminated in February were from a biomaterials group that supported Seprafilm, an adhesion barrier sold to prevent scarring in patients who had undergone surgeries.

Sanofi has not specified how many jobs it is eliminating worldwide. The company told its labor unions last month that it is paring about 600 jobs in France, but it has not confirmed cuts at other locations besides Massachusetts.

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But sales at Sanofi Genzyme climbed nearly 30 percent last year, lifted by higher demand for the MS pill Aubagio that is now the division’s top-selling product.

The division’s growth outpaced Sanofi’s overall revenue gain of 9.7 percent, a performance that could help insulate the specialty care division from deeper cuts.

Sanofi Genzyme, which markets some products that aid in bone marrow transplants, abandoned its cancer research programs years ago. But under the reorganization, it will relaunch cancer research and absorb some cancer programs already underway at Sanofi.

It will also build up a drug pipeline in immunology, much of it in partnership with Regeneron.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide in October whether to approve their lead drug, Sarilumab, which treats rheumatoid arthritis. The two companies expect a decision next year on another drug, Dupilumab, which treats an inflammatory skin condition.


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