Sanofi commits €400M to another cancer R&D pact, this time with Innate Pharma

Less than a year after Sanofi downsized its cancer drug R&D operations, the pharma giant has struck back-to-back deals to launch new immuno-oncology drug programs, looking to continue to beef up in a field where the company has fallen far behind its top rivals.

Sanofi ($SNY) turned to Cambridge, MA-based upstart Warp Drive Bio for one of its new pacts, retooling a three-year relationship while forging a separate deal to work with France's Innate Pharma to generate bispecifics able to muster an attack on cancer cells by so-called natural killer (NK) cells.

In its deal with Innate, Sanofi is committing up to €400 million to create new bispecific antibodies that can spur a natural killer cell by targeting the NKp46 receptor. A bispecific could bind to the receptor on NK cells as well as an antigen on the surface of cancer cells, offering a new pathway to attacking cancer.

Shares of Innate surged 11% on the news.

Sanofi has now struck a string of new cancer pacts following a $1.8 billion deal with its close partner Regeneron ($REGN) last summer to pursue checkpoint programs that would scramble a cloaking mechanism cancer cells use to evade the immune system. These new R&D programs unveiled over the weekend ahead of JP Morgan offer a shot at combination treatments that may one day offer multiple punches against cancer, a strategy that has inspired a host of pacts throughout the industry over the last two years.

Sanofi laid off some 100 staffers in its big Boston operations--including cancer R&D chief Tal Zaks--after experiencing a series of setbacks that occurred as big rivals surged into the lead in immuno-oncology. Sanofi absorbed oncology R&D into its global operations. The company was forced to scrap iniparib in 2013 in a key setback.

Patrick Soon-Shiong

Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has invested heavily into the NK field as well. And Sanofi is far behind the three top checkpoint leaders--Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK), which have products on the market, as well as Roche ($RHHBY), which is following up with a big Phase III program of its own. AstraZeneca ($AZN) has slipped back into a distant fourth.  

"By building on our knowledge of the activating receptor NKp46, we have generated a technology to specifically induce tumor killing by NK cells," said Nicolai Wagtmann, the CSO of Innate Pharma, in a statement. "This new technology platform is complementary to our innovative portfolio of first-in-class antibodies targeting immune checkpoints. We intend to use it for our internal portfolio expansion, as well as through nonexclusive agreements with other companies, such as in this agreement with Sanofi."

- here's the release