State-of-the-art machines for understanding the structure of molecules: At Sanofi’s bioproduction site in Vitry-sur-Seine (Val-de-Marne), researchers are using high-tech tools to create anti-cancer therapies, a field that will become a priority for the French juggernaut.
To the naked eye, the cryo-microscopy facility, a large, massive block that occupies a room in the center of structural biology, is nothing special. But it is in the nearby projection room that you can discover the magic of this precision gem. Thus, on a large screen, infinitesimal biological structures are displayed in three dimensions in all their complexity.
Researchers will first identify a therapeutic target, such as a specific protein in the case of cancer. “Then we will try to get the structure of the protein in order to understand it: the better we understand it, the more efficient we are,” explains Laurent Chiot, director of research in the field of “molecular discovery”.
Cryoelectron microscopy, a discovery that won three international researchers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017, “allows us to get results much faster than with X-rays,” reducing the time from two years to two weeks, says Laurent Shio.
This has a price: three million euros for this machine, seven million for another, more efficient one, which will soon be put into operation.
– From chemistry to biomanufacturing –
A symbol of the change of the era? The century-old Vitry site in the suburbs of Paris began its transformation ten years ago, and the time when the first penicillin-based antibiotics were produced here is long gone.
Sanofi is currently investing in the production of anti-cancer drugs, no longer through chemistry, but through biomanufacturing, that is, production from living organisms. Vitry was transformed after cleaning. 250 million euros were invested in the construction of “Biostart”, a production and research building.
Now, monoclonal antibodies are being developed and produced here: antibodies are drugs that, for example, act on proteins necessary for the production of cancer cells and bind to them to destroy them. Or act on the regulation of the immune response.
However, this production is much more complicated than chemistry. “There are five phases of amplification” of the drug, explains Julie Bailly, one of the site managers: “We start with a very small 1 ml tube and run different volumes up to 10,000 liters.”
Fermenters at work on the premises of the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi in Vitry-sur-Seine, Val-de-Marne, September 9, 2022 (AFP – Thomas SAMSON)
This results in huge stainless steel fermenters, which, after five weeks of processing, produce 16-liter bottles that are sent to patients around the world.
Three antibodies are produced here. Cholesterol-lowering Praluent, cancer drug Sarclisa (for multiple myeloma), and Kevzara (for rheumatoid arthritis). The Vitry plant, which continues to produce chemotherapeutic molecules, is Sanofi’s oncology research center with approximately 2,000 employees, including 1,300 people involved in research and development.
Will these investments be enough to put the French laboratory on the pedestal of oncology giants? Paul Hudson, its managing director, acknowledges this: “We’re a small company in oncology.”
While the group made a strategic shift in a few years, it recently failed to develop Amcenestrant, a breast cancer drug developed at Vitry.
“Of the ten drugs that are in clinical trials, only one will be successful,” Paul Hudson defends. “We are putting more money than ever into discoveries,” he adds, saying he is open to new acquisitions.
In any case, with the health crisis, bio-production has become a matter of sovereignty, as France is very dependent on imports. To the point that Emmanuel Macron set a goal for 2021 to develop five new biomedical drugs in five years.