Pfizer has become the latest drug maker to bet that synthetic messenger RNA molecules (mRNA) can be a new source for vaccines.
This morning, the New York pharma company cut a deal with BioNTech, of Germany, to co-develop mRNA vaccines for flu prevention.
BioNTech will run the initial human tests on these treatments, then hand the programs off to Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) for further development.
Through an unspecified upfront cash payout, equity, and research payments, BioNTech could net a total of $120 million in the near-term for signing the deal. It could ultimately see another $305 million in downstream payments, but only if all the programs get to the market and hit certain sales targets.
In a report this year tracking flu outbreaks in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the 2017-2018 flu season, from Oct. 1 to May 19, was among the most severe in the country since 2003-2004. The results “highlight the importance of public health measures to control and prevent influenza,” the CDC said.
Kathrin Jansen, the head of Pfizer’s vaccine research division, noted in a statement that new approaches are needed to deal with both seasonal and pandemic flu threats. mRNA technology might help. Though the method is largely unproven in humans, mRNA drug making, meant to coax the body into producing proteins that might be dysfunctional or missing in disease, offers the potential to make “higher potency flu vaccines more rapidly, and at a lower cost, than contemporary flu vaccines,” Jansen said in the statement.
So far, most partnerships pharma companies have signed with mRNA drug developers have been focused on cancer vaccines. Merck, Sanofi, Boehringer Ingelheim, Genentech, and Eli Lilly have all cut deals with mRNA drug developers (including BioNTech) to use mRNA vaccines to help people respond to cancer immunotherapy. BioNTech, too, is largely focused on cancer—all of the experimental programs in its pipeline are potential cancer therapies. But the field’s efforts in infectious diseases are starting to gain traction as well.
Moderna Therapeutics, the privately held, Cambridge, MA, mRNA drug maker, is developing experimental vaccines for flu and other infections like Zika, chikungunya virus, and cytomegalovirus. Merck is in on two undisclosed Moderna preventative vaccine programs. CureVac, another mRNA drug developer, is also advancing vaccines for infections like flu, malaria, and rabies. In June, Sanofi paid Translate Bio (NASDAQ: TBIO) $45 million to co-develop five mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases. At the time, Sanofi Pasteur senior VP of R&D John Shiver noted that mRNA vaccines could improve the “breadth of immune response for infectious disease vaccines.” Now Pfizer is buying in.