Insulin maker Sanofi-Aventis took a big hit last year with the Lantus-cancer scare. But that hasn't stopped them from charging ahead in diabetes care. According to industry observers, the company's new US Diabetes unit, fueled by a recent "acquisition binge," is gearing up to "turn the diabetes world upside-down" with a full set of new offerings to help doctors help patients achieve better outcomes. Sounds intriguing!

I caught up last week with Dennis Urbaniak, Sanofi's new VP of US Diabetes (former head of channels and innovation), to talk about this aggressive path, and how they plan to turn "out of the box thinking" into real-life improvements for real PWDs:

DM) Dennis, Sanofi has now stated the intention to become a "full diabetes management solution provider." What does that really mean?

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DU) Our thinking is, how can we move beyond the molecule? We want to develop a full, flexible suite of options — not only treatments, but also services to help people with diabetes live their lives better. Our goal is to be a 360-degree partner for people with diabetes.

So far you've announced at least three strategic research alliances, struck a partnership with AgaMatrix to bring Sanofi-branded glucose meters to market, and recently announced several drug development deals, specifically for type 1 diabetes with JDRF and for type 2 diabetes with WellStat. Can you explain how this "full suite" of offerings is coming together?

We want to treat the full progression of the disease — both type 1 and type 2, and pre-diabetes. In the past, the focus in our insulin franchise was product marketing teams — the traditional pharma approach. What's different today is that we're moving beyond a product focus, now looking at new patient solutions, device offerings, and ways to help secure reimbursement for these tools. This is very different than being brand-driven.  We want to identify those 'right solutions' to help the right patients at the right time, and gather evidence along the way of the impact these tools are having.

That all sounds great, but how will you identify these 'right solutions'? Especially for the needs that go beyond technology, like access to healthy food, opportunities to be physically active, etc.?

A lot of companies just throw a whole bunch of 'stuff' at the diabetes patient. We're trying not to join in on that. We want to understand what the patient needs. We're not going to sit in a room with a bunch of physicians who think they know what's going on with patients, and have them make all the decisions.

Rather, we're in fact-finding mode now. We have acquired a bunch of new technologies, and will be tracking how those are received. We've established an internal group called Patient Solutions, that's not tied to any particular product. It consists of three individuals — one focused on type 1 diabetes; one community manager, whose job will be to connect with the diabetes community more specifically and look at what we can bring forward; and a third person to oversee this group and lead it forward.  They'll be looking at lifestyle and community needs as well as what people want in new devices.

And how will your Community Manager engage with us?

A primary vehicle that we're starting to engage in is of course Social Media — as a way to listen to what the community is talking about. We also plan to set up formal and informal networks of advisers, both type 1 and type 2.

I still need a little more 'nuts and bolts' on this 'suite of solutions.' Are you saying that Sanofi will start to offer sophisticated logging software and even one-on-one diabetes coaching?

There's a lot of activity in market right now, which creates a lot of noise and confusion. I'm sure patients are asking: 'what's really out there for me?'

We want to offer a broad suite of resources as opposed to stand-alone products. With our AgaMatrix partnership, we've shown the desire to get into devices, but we're not limited to that specific area.  It's a combination of leveraging the unique offerings we have here and building more strategic partnerships.

Support services is certainly part of that, because patients need support with their diabetes management. We can bucket this into different types of education, for example our partnership with Healthyi, which is a product that helps CDEs get better dialogues going with patients about adjusting to life with diabetes.

Will this include direct-to-patient education?

We see opportunities in terms of nutrition, diet, and exercise. We're not looking to monetize services as primary objective; it could be in the form of free support for people using Sanofi products.

We're also exploring ways for making an impact at the community level — how do we help connect patients, providers, and community leaders for better outcomes? An example of that would be the Community Health Partnership program we launched in the Memphis area.

Wait, support only for people using Sanofi products? How can we be sure that becoming a 'full solutions provider' isn't just a euphemism for locking patients in to buying a bunch of different products from the same company?

We're trying to define a full set of resources for: 'how do I live my life with diabetes the right way to be successful? How do I use drug therapies, devices, eat, and live the most healthy way possible?'

We're exploring the impact of these 'combined interventions.' We're building this infrastructure through a variety of different pilots. It's going to take time, and thought, and careful documentation to provide value as opposed to just "stuff."

And we know that we can't go in and create a situation where patients can only take a Sanofi-Aventis product for each one of these areas — that is not going to work. That's not being a partner. We want to be a partner to patients, be open to offering them choices. This is our opportunity to earn trust from people based on how we act.

In terms of devices, this seems like a poor time to be entering the glucose monitoring market, with these devices becoming 'commoditized.'

We're familiar with that view of the market; we know we need to be disruptive in order to succeed. We think that with AgaMatrix's technology, we have a good platform to start with. And we believe the new offering will be disruptive. I can't say more at this time, but some general info should be coming out at EASD (the European Association for the Study of Diabetes' fall conference).

You also talked about reimbursement. What are you doing to help patients with that?

Two things:

1. We believe one of greatest tools to change reimbursement is to create that evidence — demonstrate the impact of a combined approach of tools to help patients do better.

2. We're working with the payers to share that evidence. The way it works today, is that a vendor goes in and talks about access for a particular drug or device — just for that single product. We believe a 'combined approach' may be more effective.

What about your new venture working on drug development for type 1 diabetes with JDRF? What can patients expect to see on that front soon?

If we say we want to be a global diabetes company — across the board — then helping with everything, including research for a cure, is all within the realm of our responsibilities.

We've set this up as a partnership with high-level targets: cell regeneration and immune therapy. The collaboration was just finalized, so we'll begin to put together this network.

In the short-term what people will see is the research agenda, which will become public: How are the two organizations investing along this research platform? The funding is currently only secured through 2012, so we have to move fairly quickly.

Our guiding principles with this entire new approach to diabetes are:

1. Make decisions in the best interest of patient

2. Value new approaches in terms of innovation

3. Move quickly

Isn't 'moving quickly' a relative term in the pharma industry?

{chuckles} That's a fair criticism. But if you look at the past six months, the amount of new partnerships Sanofi has announced, you can see we're not sitting still.

And how do you decide what's in the best interest of the patient?

As noted, we're not just going to be talking to doctors, but gathering evidence on the real solutions that help real patients. Our top priority coming in (to the diabetes patient community) at the moment is to listen. Then we'll build examples to demonstrate how this new 'comprehensive care' approach is really helping people.

Will you be 'transparent' with your research results? For example, would Sanofi consider sharing its data in the new Type 1 Diabetes national registry being compiled by the Helmsley Trust?

I'm not familiar with the details of that project, but I would say from a conceptual point of view, both external partnering and transparency are priorities in all our efforts.

OK, so if patients have input about how a new 'integrated platform' might best help them, how can they get in touch with you all?

People can reach out to me and my team directly. I'm on twitter at @DUrbaniak. We're looking for trusted partners to work with. We hope to create a whole network of feedback.

We're looking forward to becoming an active member of the community and being in closer touch with the patients out there already sharing and interacting.

Sounds great, Dennis. And you are right: trust will be built on Sanofi's actions going forward, which always speak louder than words.

Thank you for the preview!

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