Sanofi inks a $1.5B deal to join BioNTech's growing list of oncology partners

Sanofi ($SNY) is pairing up with Germany's BioNTech in a collaboration potentially worth $1.5 billion, licensing some early-stage cancer immunotherapies that use messenger RNA to target tumors.

Under the deal, Sanofi will pay its partner $60 million in exchange for the rights to 5 discovery-stage immunotherapies, each relying on BioNTech's proprietary messenger RNA, or mRNA, platform. The French drugmaker is promising up to $300 million more per project, payments tied to development, regulatory and commercial milestones.

BioNTech's technology centers on crafting synthetic mRNAs coded to spur the production of specific proteins. Once they break into their target cells, these strands of code transform patients' body's into ersatz drug factories, manufacturing therapeutic molecules in vivo to treat cancer. The company's work in oncology has made it a popular partner in recent months, and the Sanofi agreement follows an antibody-focused deal with Genmab and a cell therapy pact with Eli Lilly ($LLY).

For Sanofi, the partnership comes amid a cautious re-embrace of cancer R&D. Following years of unsuccessful work in oncology, Sanofi cut deep into its cancer research operation in February, laying off 100 workers as Tal Zaks, who led the group, left the company. In the months since, Sanofi has signed a handful of deals to wade back into oncology development, notably striking a cancer-focused agreement with frequent partner Regeneron Pharmaceuticals ($REGN) worth up to $1.8 billion.

And Sanofi's co-sign of mRNA caps what has been a big year for the technology, long understood but previously considered a risky bet for clinical development. Moderna Therapeutics has raised nearly $1 billion in venture and partnering cash with its wide-ranging approach to mRNA, and Germany's CureVac has used its work in the field to lure some big-name investors, this week announcing a $110 million fundraise with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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