The Tucson area's biotech industry has yet to produce a new, billion-dollar blockbuster drug.

But the way things are going at French drug giant Sanofi's research center in Oro Valley, it may only be a matter of time.

Using technology developed by University of Arizona scientists more than 20 years ago, about 80 scientists are busy sifting through libraries of millions of druglike molecules, synthesizing molecules with promise, analyzing them and shipping them off to Sanofi drug centers worldwide.

And those efforts are paying off.

In the past decade, the Oro Valley center has produced more than 40 new candidate drug compounds for Sanofi's drug-development pipeline, and two are in active clinical trials for cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis, research director Ken Wertman said at a recent event held for VIPs and media.

Several other drug candidates developed here are in the preclinical phase, and a dozen or so are a little earlier in the process, Wertman said, speaking in a conference room with stunning views of the Santa Catalina mountains.

Companywide, as of April Sanofi had 61 drugs in its product-development pipeline and is eyeing 17 potential drug launches by 2015, including four this year.

But those are very small numbers compared with the literally countless numbers of potential druglike molecules.

Sanofi's Oro Valley center works at the start of the drug- development process, where the number of druglike chemical compounds, Wertman said, is estimated at 10 to the 26th power (10^26) - somewhere between a septillion and an octillion.

To search through that vast space - a task Wertman likens to "looking for a piece of hay in a haystack" - the roughly 80 scientists at Sanofi in Oro Valley use the same methods pioneered by four UA researchers who founded what later became Sanofi's operation in Oro Valley.

"It was really an astounding productivity invention that they brought forward," said Wertman, who joined the original company, Selectide Corp., in 1992.

But to experiment with such compounds, so-called "small molecules" - useful in drugs because they readily bind with bigger organic molecules like proteins and nucleic acids (like DNA) - must be created from scratch, Wertman said.

"The compounds are compounds that have never existed before. We go into completely new classes of molecules that nobody else has, to ask about their possible drug properties," he said.

Through high-throughput screening methods, Wertman said, researchers "ask" simple questions about each candidate compound, like whether it will bind with a specific cell receptor that could affect disease behavior. The makeup of the molecule can then be tweaked to maximize its therapeutic potential, he said.

The company also uses sophisticated computer modeling to further narrow down which specific compounds show the most promise.

Using such means, the Oro Valley center is able to screen some 2 million molecules per month, and the Oro Valley labs have created about 1 million new molecules, Wertman said.

Sanofi's Oro Valley facility is a key player in the drug giant's research, and part of the company's "open innovation" philosophy of collaboration within the company and with researchers from industry and academia, said Marc Bonnefoi, head of Sanofi's North American research and development hub.

Such "local innovative ecosystems" help drive technology from far-flung labs into the market, Bonnefoi said.

"There are great scientists everywhere in the world, and if you want to leverage this, you have to have great scientists inside and the ability to partner with the great scientists that exists at universities, research universities, government, et cetera," Bonnefoi said.

Besides deep ties to the UA and its Bio5 research institute, the local Sanofi operation collaborates with the Tucson-based Critical Path Institute; nearby Ventana Medical Systems, part of Roche; the Tucson-based Muscular Dystrophy Association; and Oro Valley Hospital, Wertman said.

Beyond the Tucson area, collaboration is ongoing in several projects taken on by the Oro Valley site's "early to candidate" team, a group including scientists from Sanofi labs in Boston and the Sanofi-Genzyme research center in Bridgewater, N.J.

The group is currently working to create and test compounds that can spur the body's stem cells to repair damaged nerve cells in multiple sclerosis patients, to regenerate muscle cells, and to restore hearing by spurring regeneration of tiny hairlike inner-ear cells, said Paul August, head of the U.S. early-to-candidate unit.

"Don't crank up those iPods yet. We've still got a long way to go," August said of the hearing-loss studies, which are in preclinical phase.

Did you know?

University of Arizona chemistry professor Victor Hruby and UA Cancer Center researchers Sydney Salmon, Kit Lam and Evan Hersh formed Selectide Corp. in 1990, using the new field of "combinatorial chemistry" to screen vast numbers of chemical peptides for their potential to fight disease.

The company was sold to Marion Merrill Dow in 1995 for $53 million, and through a series of sales and mergers became part of Sanofi in 2004.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.