Sanofi doubles down on mRNA jabs with €400m-a-year R&D drive

French pharma company Sanofi

Sanofi has just significantly increased its investment in mRNA vaccine development, earmarking €400 million ($475 million) a year in R&D funding to an effort that it hopes will deliver at least six clinical-stage candidates by 2025. 

The money will go towards Sanofi's mRNA research centre – split between Cambridge, Massachusetts in the US and Marcy l'Etoile in Lyon, France – and expansion of its team to around 400 workers focusing on "R&D, digital, and chemistry, manufacturing and controls (CMC)."

The investment builds on Sanofi's alliance with mRNA specialist Translate Bio, which has already advanced vaccines for COVID-19 and seasonal influenza into clinical trials.

mRNA vaccines work by using the body's own cellular machinery to code for proteins found on the surface of a pathogen, for example the spike protein that the COVID-19 virus uses to latch on to cells and infect them.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA technologies demonstrated potential to deliver new vaccines faster than ever before," said Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of R&D at Sanofi's vaccine unit Sanofi Pasteur.

There are however still a lot of areas for improvement, he added, including thermostability – which has meant that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines have had to be stored at very low temperatures – as well as and tolerability improvements.

Current mRNA-based vaccines for COVID-19 from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have been linked to rare side effects related to inflammation of the heart muscle in some people.

Overcoming these challenges "will be critical to unlock the applications of mRNA in routine vaccination against a broader set of infectious diseases and across all ages," according to Toussaint.

Sanofi and Translate have been working together since 2018, when they agreed to develop mRNA vaccines for up to five infectious diseases.

The alliance was extended last year to include additional vaccine candidates, with Translate getting a $425 million in the form of an upfront payment and equity investment from the French drugmaker.

It is also eligible for potential future milestones and other payments up to $1.9 billion, including $450 million of milestones from the original 2018 agreement.

Sanofi isn't the only vaccine company that has made mRNA a key element of its R&D strategy. Last week, GlaxoSmithKline said it was investing "at pace" in mRNA vaccines, with more than 200 researchers focusing on this area, and expects to have two candidates in trials within 12 months and six within the next four years.

Other companies working on mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases include the COVID-19 players – BioNTech, Moderna  and CureVac – which are looking at other candidates for indications like flu, malaria, tuberculosis, rabies and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), amongst others.

Gilead Sciences meanwhile is partnering with Gritstone on an HIV vaccine and Arcturus Therapeutics is working on candidates for flu and COVID-19.