Over the past few years, Sanofi has increasingly upped its bet that vaccines and therapies based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology could transform the drug industry. Now, the firm is going all in with plans to acquire its mRNA partner, Lexington, Massachusetts-based Translate Bio, in a deal worth about $3.2 billion.
COVID-19 provided an unexpected opportunity for mRNA vaccine developers to demonstrate the technology’s speed and power. In the early days of the pandemic, the mRNA vaccines were underdogs, built on a technology that was decades in the making but never tested in advanced clinical trials.
Now, two mRNA vaccines for COVID-19—one codeveloped by Pfizer and BioNTech and another made by Moderna—are the most effective and widely used shots in the pandemic thus far. That success has spurred Moderna to bolster its pipeline and has prompted Pfizer to begin investing in its own mRNA programs, without BioNTech.
Now Sanofi is looking to cement its place in the mRNA field with the acquisition of Translate for $38 per share—a 30% premium from its market price the day before the announcement. Translate does not have any products on the market, and only has two vaccines and one therapy in the early stages of clinical testing.
Translate originated in 2008, when a team of scientists at the rare disease firm Shire Therapeutics began working on developing an mRNA therapy for cystic fibrosis. The program was later spun out into a company that became Translate, which in June 2018 was the first mRNA startup to become publicly traded. Soon after, Sanofi struck a collaboration with Translate to codevelop mRNA vaccines for up to five infectious disease pathogens. It expanded the partnership to cover any infectious disease in 2020.
Early in the pandemic, Sanofi and Translate announced that they would codevelop an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19. Clinical trials of the shot were supposed to begin by the end of 2020 but were delayed to March 2021. Sanofi and Translate expect to report data from their Phase 1/2 trial before the end of September, but with countries worldwide placing huge advanced orders for Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, it is unclear how big of a dent Sanofi’s and Translate’s vaccine will make in the pandemic.
The pair’s second mRNA vaccine program, to prevent seasonal influenza, entered a Phase 1 clinical trial in June 2021.
Sanofi is also betting that mRNA designed to encode a therapeutic protein will provide new treatments for rare diseases. Translate’s most advanced program is an mRNA therapy encoding instructions for a protein called CFTR that is broken in people with cystic fibrosis. Existing small molecule therapies only work for a subset of people with certain mutations in CFTR. Translate’s mRNA therapy, in theory, is designed to treat any form of cystic fibrosis. However, the inhaled mRNA therapy didn’t improve lung function according to early results from the ongoing trial disclosed in March.
Despite that disappointment, Sanofi believes mRNA therapies have a strong future, and had begun bolstering its investment in the technology before its Translate acquisition announcement. In April, Sanofi acquired an under-the-radar firm called Tidal Therapeutics in a deal worth up to $470 million. Tidal is using mRNA to reprogram immune cells to treat cancer and inflammatory diseases. And in June, Sanofi said it would invest about $475 million annually in its newly launched mRNA Center of Excellence, which will incorporate about 400 employees at its R&D and production sites in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Lyon, France.
The investments signal pharma’s growing belief that mRNA will have staying power long after the pandemic is over, and that the technology can help solve problems in infectious disease, rare disease, cancer, and more.