Genentech lays $310M wager on BioNTech’s mRNA cancer vaccine platform

Genentech has bought a leading position in the race to realize the potential of messenger RNA-based personalized cancer vaccines. The deal sees the Roche ($RHHBY) subsidiary commit $310 million (€278 million) in upfront and near-term payments to BioNTech to partner on its mRNA cancer vaccine platform.

BioNTech has landed the deal, which follows its $1.5 billion mRNA pact with Sanofi ($SNY), on the back of progress with its IVAC Mutanome platform. Vaccines derived from the platform entered the clinic in 2014, leading to the publication of early data in Nature. With those data adding to evidence that IVAC Mutanome may lead to personalized, broadly applicable cancer vaccines, Genentech has bought into merits of BioNTech’s process.

“Cancer cells express mutations. The challenge really is each cancer cell expresses different mutations,” BioNTech COO Sean Marett told FierceBiotech. “We've developed a process where we can identify the most valuable mutations from a pharmaceutical point of view and manufacture them in a just-in-time basis for the individual patient.”

The promise of the resulting vaccines, and the potential to pair them with checkpoint inhibitors, has persuaded Genentech to commit to a sizable amount of upfront and milestone payments, while also agreeing to share the profits from certain programs. With BioNTech retaining copromotion rights in some markets and the option to pick up programs Genentech drops, the deal could act as a stepping stone to the German biotech’s goal of bringing its own products to market.

In the nearer term, the implications of the deal for BioNTech are less clear. Marett is cagey about the deal and what it means for BioNTech’s R&D plans, saying little more than that the partners will advance vaccines based on the IVAC Mutanome platform into a clinical proof-of-concept trial.

Marett and BioNTech have an internal timeline for when the trial will start, but are keeping mum in public. The COO is similarly reticent to discuss whether the deal features milestones beyond the near-term paydays in the $310 million. “I can't disclose that," he said.

The limited look at the financial aspects of the deal is in keeping with Genentech’s MO. And, as Marett sees it, the reticence to discuss R&D timelines is a prudent business practice in a field as highly competitive as immuno-oncology.

Marett thinks BioNTech has already given its competitors a leg up by publishing details of its platform in Nature. "Since we published our seminal work on this, we've noticed a number of companies in the United States who've entered this area,” Marett said.

As it stands, Marett thinks BioNTech is two years in front of the competition, a cushion he is keen to maintain and extend.

"That's the whole reason why reason why we partnered with Genentech," he said.

The lead-extension plan is predicated on the idea that Genentech, through its own operation and that of its parent company Roche, is better placed than BioNTech and its 500 employees to power an asset toward approval.

"There's only so much we can do. We're a biotech company with the funding that comes with biotech,” Marett said. “Genentech allows us to really, really drive the development of this approach on a worldwide basis."