The French drug firm has agreed to pay Ablynx €23m ($26.7m) upfront as well is €8m in research funding for the selected nanobody candidates, which target immune-mediated inflammatory diseases.
Ablynx is also in line to receive €2.4bn in development, regulatory and commercial milestones, as well as sales royalties, if any nanobody drugs developed as a result of the partnership are brought to market.
Nanobodies, as their name suggests, are similar to antibodies, but considerably smaller.
They are based on antibodies found in camelidae - camels and llamas – which lack the light chain domains present in conventional molecules and instead consist only of the heavy chains and a single variable region.
According to Ablynx their small size means nanobodies can bind multiple therapeutic targets, including those that cannot be accessed by conventional antibodies. The firm also says nanobodies can be delivered via a wider range of routes – including inhalation.
They are also cheaper to manufacture according to Ablynx CEO Edwin Moses who told us "Nanobodies can be produced in microbial systems like E. coli and yeast, so they are potentially less costly to produce than mAbs."
He added that under the deal "Sanofi will be responsible for clinical development and commercialization and also scale-up and manufacturing, though we will contribute our know-how as appropriate."
Sanofi is not the only firm to have been attracted by Ablynx’s technology.
In 2008, for example, Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim entered a nanobodies development deal. According to Moses two programmes in the clinic from this deal and others are still in preclinical development
In 2014, the Belgian developer signed similar licensing and development deal with Merck & Co. A year later, Denmark’s Novo Nordisk forged a nanobodies agreement. Moses confirmed that both collaborations are ongoing and "progressing very well."
Abbvie is also working on nanobodies with Ablynx. In October, the US firm declined to exercise an option to license vobarilizumab, an anti-IL-6R Nanobody, based on results of a Phase 2 study in rheumatoid arthritis.
However, in February AbbVie confirmed it retains an option to license vobarilizumab based on results of an on-going Phase 2 study in systemic lupus erythematosus.