Sanofi, which first dipped its toes into messenger RNA research through a partnership when the technology was still unproven, is now diving in completely by creating a division that will focus exclusively on developing new mRNA vaccines.
The Paris-based pharmaceutical giant announced Tuesday the formation of its mRNA Center of Excellence, which will be supported by about €400 million ($477 million) annually. This center will have about 400 employees based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Lyon, France.
Sanofi is already one of the largest vaccines companies in the world. Its vaccines business segment generated more than €5.9 billion in sales last year (about $7 billion). But those products are based on traditional vaccine technologies, which require a lengthy process for producing the antigens that prompt the immune response. In mRNA vaccines, that antigen, a protein, is produced by a person’s own cells. The vaccine delivers the genetic instructions that tell cells what protein to make.
The new Sanofi mRNA vaccines division follows the successful development of mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and BioNTech. But these vaccines still present challenges, including ultra-cold storage requirements as well as patient tolerability of the headaches, chills, and other effects experienced in the day or two following vaccination. Sanofi believes it can improve on those aspects of mRNA vaccines, and in doing so, make the technology applicable to more diseases.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, mRNA technologies demonstrated potential to deliver new vaccines faster than ever before,” Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of research and development for Sanofi Pasteur, said in a prepared statement. “However, key areas of innovation such as thermostability and tolerability improvements will be critical to unlock the applications of mRNA in routine vaccination against a broader set of infectious diseases and across all ages. The Sanofi mRNA vaccines Center of Excellence aims to lead the field in this next chapter of vaccine innovation.”
Sanofi’s initial foray into mRNA vaccines was three years ago, when it began its collaboration with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Translate Bio. That alliance covered the development vaccines for five infectious diseases based on Translate Bio’s mRNA platform. The deal included an option to expand to more pathogens. In March 2020, the partners announced they would build on that partnership by working together to develop an mRNA vaccine for Covid-19.
A little more than a year ago, the partnership formally expanded to include the Covid-19 vaccine candidate as well as other targets, such as influenza. Sanofi paid Translate Bio $425 million up front—$300 million in cash, $125 million in an equity investment. Under the agreement, it could be responsible for up to $1.9 billion more in milestone payments. That total includes $450 in milestones covered under the original 2018 deal.
The partnered Covid-19 vaccine candidate is currently in Phase 1/2 testing. Last week, Sanofi and Translate Bio began a Phase 1 study testing an mRNA vaccine for influenza. The study, which is enrolling up to 280 healthy adults, is expected to post preliminary data by the end of this year.
Sanofi has also spread its mRNA bets to include other applications of the mRNA technology. The company is collaborating with BioNTech on SAR441000, an mRNA therapeutic candidate intended to stimulate an immune response to tumors. That program is in Phase 1 testing.
In April, the pharmaceutical giant paid an undisclosed sum to acquire Tidal Therapeutics, a preclinical-stage biotech company that is developing a way to use mRNA to engineer immune cells inside the patient as a way of producing new cell therapies for cancer.
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