Sanofi Taps Avila Therapeutics for Covalent Cancer Drugs in Potential $800M Deal

Xconomy Boston — 

Avila Therapeutics is ending 2010 with a bang. The Waltham, MA-based drug development startup has snapped up a deal worth up to about $800 million with the French drug giant Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE:SNY), Avila said this morning. Sanofi is paying for access to Avila’s technology for identifying potential cancer drugs that silence tumor-related proteins with durable covalent bonds.

This deal involves mostly potential dollars, but Sanofi has agreed to pay Avila up to $40 million in upfront money and research support for the next three years to fund the two firms’ collaboration. Their work will focus on six drug targets—all of which are signaling proteins involved in cancer. Most of the $800 million or so involved in the deal would come in the form of development and regulatory milestone payments for the drugs that Sanofi decides to advance.

Avila, founded in 2007, is getting another ringing endorsement for its covalent drug chemistry here. The company’s drug compounds are designed to form covalent bonds with disease-causing proteins, bonds that are supposed to be much stronger than those formed by typical drugs, and provide benefits such as lasting longer in the system. In fact, the company says its technology achieves “protein silencing” that cannot be accomplished through traditional medicinal chemistry.

While Avila is also developing its technology for hepatitis C and other disease types, the oncology field has thus far been where the firm is generating the most interest from corporate partners. In spring, Avila landed a $209 million deal with Boulder, CO-based Clovis Oncology to develop a covalent drug against a specific mutation involved in non-small cell lung cancer. In its internal pipeline, Avila’s lead candidate is a molecule called AVL-292 for treating lymphomas and autoimmune diseases.

Avila’s deal with Sanofi is yet another step the French drug giant has taken to strengthen its ties with biotech researchers in the Boston area. The drug maker inked a $33 million research and licensing deal with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, announced in September, and this summer revealed that it would house a new cancer research division in Cambridge, MA, and invest $65 million to expand its research facilities in the city. Meanwhile, the French drug giant has for months pursued an acquisition of the Cambridge-based biotech powerhouse Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ), which has called Sanofi’s $18.5 billion or $69-per-share buyout offer too low.

Apparently, Sanofi is having no trouble making friends with other outfits in the Boston biotech community during its rocky pursuit of Genzyme.