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Rhone-Poulenc makes its move.

Rhone-Poulenc makes its move

Chemical giant Rhone-Poulenc is targeting the pharmaceutical industry in its strategic plans for the 1990s.

The goal is to make the Paris-based company one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the world by 2000. "We intend to be among the five world leaders in biological and life sciences," says research head Philippe Desmarescaux.

Recent acquisitions include the U.S. drug firm Rorer, Union Carbide's agro-science division, and England's Connaught, a vaccine specialist.

"We're already in the same league with Hoechst, Merck, Bayer, and Ciba-Geigy," says Desmarescaux, 52, a PhD in chemical engineering.

The company, with $15 billion in annual sales, spends $970 million (more than 6% of sales) a year on R&D. It employs 86,000 workers worldwide, 8,000 of them researchers. The ratio of PhDs to technicians has doubled in the past five years, as has its research budget, says Desmarescaux.

Historically, Rhone-Poulenc has served four primary industries: * Chemicals ($235 million in R&D). Recent work has taken place in the synthesis of benzophenones and the alkylation of phenol. * Fibers (of which it is the world's third largest producer) and polymers ($60 million in R&D). Work is progressing on thermotropic polymers and other materials to serve the automotive, aeronautics, and electronics industries. * Agro-chemistry ($125 million in R&D). Projects include work on broad-spectrum insecticides based on inhibiting insects' gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors and a new family of fungicides that slow the biosynthesis of sterols, one of the constituents of fungi membrane. * Human health care ($550 million in R&D).

Recently, the company created two new groups: specialty chemicals and intermediate organics and inorganics.

Its human health care division, known as Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, has more than 3,400 employees working in five research centers in France, Great Britain, and the U.S.

Desmarescaux says Rhone-Poulenc has gained prominence as France's key player in the life sciences. "If you want to work on a life-science project in connection with a French partner, there is a high chance Rhone-Poulenc will be involved, too," he says.

The health care effort has six priority areas--AIDS research, cardiovascular disease, cancer, the central nervous system, infectious diseases, and inflammation.

Desmarescaux says the company is "concentrating its innovation effort at the interface between chemistry and biology." In the past, he says, the company was known for chemicals, "but with 60% of our R&D effort devoted to biology, we will be able to capitalize on this interface."

Rhone-Poulenc is waging a major campaign against the AIDS virus. In one program, researchers are trying to develop a compound that has selective activity on the AIDS virus. They are using genetic engineering and molecular modeling methods for the production and structural study of reverse transcriptase and protease, two key enzymes in the AIDS reproductive cycle. The data obtained from these "targets" could allow inhibitors to be designed, through molecular modeling, and synthesized.

Research into cardiovascular disease has included the discovery of acebutolol, an effective beta blocker. Other work includes the development of compounds for the treatment of hypertension, work on the prevention and treatment of thrombosis, and research on drugs to treat irregular heartbeat, which could aid in the prevention of cardiac fibrillation.

Cancer research at Rhone-Poulenc has focused on developing more effective methods of chemotherapy and on developing cytotoxic products that actually destroy solid tumors. This work has yielded giraxaline, which is extracted from marine sponge, and a taxol derivative.

Desmarescaux says his company has benefited from its mixture of cultures. "The French approach to research is perhaps more intellectual, but weak on marketing and methodology," he says. "The American type focuses on methodology, particularly bringing new products to market. Mixing the two cultures, as we have done in our plant protection facility in Research Triangle Park (NC), makes the total far more efficient."

PHOTO : Evelyn Surcouf, head of molecular modeling at Rhone-Poulenc's Vitry-Alfortville Research Center. The chemical and pharmaceutical firm employs 8,000 researchers worldwide.

PHOTO : Claude Helene, scientific director of biology and biochemistry and a member of the French Academy of Sciences. The company spends more on health research than does Inserm, France's national health research institute.

PHOTO : R&D director Philippe Desmarescaux: "We'll be among the world's leading life-sciences companies by the year 2000."

PHOTO : Patrick Maestro, project leader for the application of rare earths, performs a superconductivity experiment at the Aubervilliers Research Center. The company also does specialty chemicals and intermediate organics and inorganics.

PHOTO : Andre Cordier, head of drug safety research, and Celine Melcion, head of development for alternative methods of in vitro and in vivo techniques. The company is concentrating its innovative efforts at the interface between chemistry and biology.
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Title Annotation:Salute to French Technology; research and development in pharmaceutical industry
Author:Derra, Skip
Publication:R & D
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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