Sanofi doubles down on Biontech

Sanofi has followed a 2015 deal with an €80m stake, joining Lilly and Pfizer as an investor in Biontech.

Biontech already has a long list of big pharma partners. Sanofi is not a new one, but the fact that the company has followed up a 2015 co-development deal with an equity investment today is another validation of the German group.

There are not many details about the project that Biontech and Sanofi are about to take into the clinic, except that it involves mRNA encoding a cocktail of unnamed cytokines. The approach is apparently similar to that pursued by the likes of Nektar Therapeutics, but with that group disappointing in the clinic last year there is still much to prove in the cytokine field.

Cytokine-based therapies are all designed to turn “cold” tumours “hot”, but Biontech’s chief operating officer, Sean Marett, believes that Biontech and Sanofi’s project could have better efficacy than candidates from other contenders, who also include Lilly, through its acquisition of Armo Biosciences.

One reason for Mr Marett's confidence is that the as-yet-unnamed Biontech/Sanofi candidate encodes a number of cytokines, though he would not be specific as to which ones. Secondly, “we’re injecting locally to get that concentration that may provide for clinical efficacy,” he said.

He also would not disclose in which cancer(s) the project would be tested, except to say the intratumoural delivery made it suitable only for solid tumours.

Other details that are still unclear include whether the mRNA will be naked or delivered in a lipid nanoparticle formulation – Biontech is considering both – and whether the therapy will need to be given alongside checkpoint inhibitors.

Despite the unanswered questions, Sanofi must have seen enough promise to invest €80m ($91m) in Biontech, following a 2015 deal that saw it pay $60m up front to co-develop five mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies.

The cytokine-based therapy is the first project to emerge from this collaboration: development of the other four candidates is still ongoing, but Mr Marett would not say whether these also involved cytokines.

Deals, deals, deals

Either way, the Sanofi-partnered assets do not have any overlap with the personalised cancer vaccines that Biontech is developing with Roche, based on neoepitopes unique to each patient’s tumour.

Biontech also has deals in place with Pfizer, covering flu vaccines, Lilly, in the field of T-cell receptors, and Genmab, concerning bispecific antibodies.

Biontech's pharma partnerships
Partner Project(s) Financial details Date 
Sanofi mRNA-based cancer therapy encoding unnamed cytokines €80m ($91m) equity investment Jan 2019
Pfizer mRNA-based influenza vaccines $120m up front, equity, "near-term" funding; $305m milestones Aug 2018
Genevant Sciences Five mRNA therapies for rare diseases 50/50 cost/profit share Jul 2018
Scancell T-cell receptor therapies for cancer None given Jan 2018
Roche mRNA-based, individualised cancer vaccines $310m up front and milestone payments Sep 2016
Sanofi Five mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies $60m up front; $300m milestones Nov 2015
Genmab Bispecific antibodies for cancer $10m up front; $5m milestones May 2015
Lilly T-cell receptor therapies for cancer $30m up front, $300m milestones, $30m equity investment May 2015
Source: EvaluatePharma, company press releases.

Biontech hopes to take the Genmab-partnered bispecifics into the clinic this year, along with a CAR-T project believed to target Claudin-6, which was initially due to start human trials in 2016.

Sanofi’s buy-in is not a guarantee of success. Just this week the French company pulled out of a deal with Myokardia, leaving the smaller group to go it alone with its cardiovascular projects mavacamten and MYK-491.

Still, even if some of Biontech’s deals also fall by the wayside, the German group’s roster of pharma partners – plus the $270m series A round it raised a year ago – gives it plenty of options.

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