Sanofi offers Ablynx billions of biobucks for nanobody partnership

Belgian biotech Ablynx just signed a potentially lucrative new deal with Sanofi that could be worth an eye-watering €2.4 billion, although just €23 million of that comes up front.

The new deal is a fillip for Ablynx after AbbVie declined to take up rights to their partnered IL-6 inhibitor nanobody vobarilizumab after the drug missed the mark in phase 2 studies, forcing Ablynx to move the drug into phase 3 on its own—likely before the end of the year—as it seeks a new partner.

Sanofi says it wants to use Ablynx's expertise to bulk up its pipeline of immune-mediated inflammatory diseases, and the French pharma group is taking on some nanobodies already in development as well as tapping into its partner's R&D capabilities.

The nature of the drug targets covered by the deal remains under wraps for the moment, but Sanofi has a broad interest in immunology with R&D programs in rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and psoriasis, as well as chronic inflammatory disease such as asthma and atopic dermatitis. It's a market with big potential, with GlobalData predicting recently that the global immunology market will climb from about $58 billion last year to more than $75 billion in 2022.

Ablynx's nanobodies are about one-tenth the size of a regular antibody, making them easier to administer, and can be linked together to hit multiple molecular targets. Sanofi's agreement covers the development of up to eight nanobodies, and the big pharma company will also provide €8 million in funding to get the projects off the ground.

The deal adds to a lengthening list of companies signing up for Ablynx's nanobody platform, including Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck & Co., Merck KGaA, Novartis, Novo Nordisk and Japan's Taisho Pharma.

It also comes as Ablynx is waiting on the outcome of the EMA's ongoing review of its first-ever marketing application, seeking approval of its caplacizumab candidate for the ultra-rare blood clotting disorder acquired thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (aTTP).

"This collaboration is the latest example of Sanofi's strategic commitment to expand our drug discovery pipeline in immunology at a time when we are launching new treatments for atopic dermatitis and rheumatoid arthritis," said Sanofi's chief scientific officer for North America, Frank Nestle, M.D.

Sanofi has just claimed approval in the U.S. for atopic dermatitis therapy Dupixent (dupilumab)—tipped to become a $3 billion blockbuster—and arthritis drug Kevzara (sarilumab), which could add another $1 billion to the company's sales at peak if all goes according to plan.