Sanofi beefs up its autoimmune pipeline with a biotech deal

Sanofi ($SNY) has inked a discovery-stage agreement in hopes of developing a fleet of new autoimmune disease treatments, homing in on a novel pathway alongside a Dutch biotech.

Under the deal, Sanofi will pay an undisclosed upfront sum to Lead Pharma to collaborate on small-molecule treatments targeting a group of nuclear hormone receptors called ROR gamma t. Those receptors play a role in the production of interleukin-17, a pro-inflammatory signaling protein, and Sanofi believes blocking ROR gamma t could help treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

With that guiding principle, the two companies plan to get rolling on the drug discovery process, hoping to begin human trials in three to four years. Along the way, Lead Pharma is eligible for R&D, regulatory and commercial milestone payments tied to any and all drugs resulting from the collaboration, while Sanofi will take the helm on clinical development and global marketing.

The deal gives Sanofi a chance to build out its pipeline of autoimmune and anti-inflammatory treatments, a field in which it has struggled to innovate on its own. The drugmaker's only late-stage autoimmune assets are the Regeneron ($REGN)-partnered sarilumab and dupilumab, and its midstage work is more focused on rare diseases and cancer.

And, by spotlighting an end-around path toward attacking interleukin-17, Sanofi is taking a new spin on what's expected to be a blockbuster corner of biology. A cadre of drugmakers is racing to cash in on antibodies targeting the protein to treat psoriasis and other diseases, led by Novartis ($NVS) and its recently approved Cosentyx. Amgen ($AMGN) and AstraZeneca's ($AZN) brodalumab and Eli Lilly's ($LLY) ixekizumab are next among interleukin-17-targeting treatments, hoping to win eventually win approvals for psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis.

While Sanofi and Lead Pharma are years away from competing with those antibodies, if they can effectively block interleukin-17 with an oral drug, they could disrupt what's expected to be a multibillion-dollar market.

"Anti-ROR gamma t therapies represent a groundbreaking opportunity that we are eager and motivated to pursue through our collaboration with Lead Pharma," Sanofi Vice President Christian Antoni said in a statement. "At Sanofi, we believe networked innovations--working collaboratively across science sectors--is the most effective way to bring meaningful new therapies to patients."

- read the statement