By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - French drugmaker Sanofi has poached one of AstraZeneca's top scientists to be its new research head in another high-profile departure for the British drugmaker.
Sanofi said on Tuesday that Yong-Jun Liu had been appointed as head of research with effect from April 1, reporting to Elias Zerhouni, the group's president of global research and development.
Liu, a specialist in immunology with more than 250 published articles in leading academic journals, currently heads up research at AstraZeneca's MedImmune biotechnology division, a position he has held since 2014.
Zerhouni said his appointment would help the transformation of Sanofi from a pharmaceutical into a biopharmaceutical company, with a strong research presence in cutting-edge biotechnology.
Prior to that he led program at Baylor Research Institute and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he was founding director of the Cancer Immunology Research Institute.
His decision to leave AstraZeneca follows the exit last June of Briggs Morrison, the company's former chief medical officer and head of late-stage drug development, and respiratory and inflammatory medicines head James Ward-Lilley.
An AstraZeneca spokesman declined to comment on his move.
AstraZeneca is going through a transition as older drugs lose patent protection and it invests heavily in new medicines, especially in the field of cancer immunotherapy.
It has a promising pipeline of experimental drugs but has also suffered some recent setbacks, including last week's failure of its marketed heart drug Brilinta as a treatment for stroke patients and earlier disappointing results with a drug to treat lung and abdominal cancer mesothelioma.
Sanofi, meanwhile, is seeking to rejuvenate its early-stage pipeline and Zerhouni said Liu's experience in immunology, oncology and translational medicine would be "vital assets" for this task.
"He fits perfectly for us at this time," Zerhouni said in a telephone interview. "We have the luxury of a full late-stage pipeline and therefore we can step back and invest for the long term."
Oncology is a particular priority. Sanofi may have missed the first wave of immunotherapy drugs that help fight tumors by removing brakes on the immune system, but Zerhouni hopes to "leapfrog" forward by focusing on new approaches and testing multiple cancer drug combinations.
"Immuno-oncology is just at the beginning of its development," he said. "Frankly, I think it won't be enough to just remove a checkpoint inhibitor because it is also important to activate the immune system."
(Editing by Jason Neely and Susan Thomas)