Sanofi will license Innate Pharma’s natural killer (NK) cell engager program for $26.6 million up front, the company announced Monday.

The program, B7H3 ANKET, targets B7H3, a glycoprotein found on solid tumors. Sanofi will be able to license two additional ANKET targets and will be responsible for their development, manufacturing and commercialization.

As part of the deal, Innate may receive up to $1.44 billion from Sanofi in preclinical, clinical and commercial milestones.

The move is part of Sanofi’s greater investment in NK cells for cancer immunotherapy. In a statement, Sanofi global head of oncology research Valeria Fantin characterized the program as “a key pillar” in the company’s oncology strategy.

“Our relationship with Innate aligns with our commitment to work with promising French companies and supports our ambition to develop a diverse portfolio of next-generation NK cell engagers, highly synergistic with Sanofi’s allogeneic NK cell platform, engineered lymphokines that stimulate NK cells and growing immuno-oncology pipeline,” Fantin said.

In 2016, Sanofi and Innate struck a collaboration to develop NK cell engagers for $425 million. That deal led to the development of two bipecific NK cell engagers that Sanofi is currently investigating – with one, SAR443579, in a clinical trial for elapsed or refractory acute myeloid leukemia, B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and high-risk myelodysplastic syndrome.

Sanofi decided to move the other bispecific NK cell engager, SAR445514, into investigational new drug (IND)-enabling studies in summer 2022.

“Sanofi’s investment in Innate further validates the value of our ANKET platform and its potential to address multiple tumor types,” said Yannis Morel, EVP of product portfolio strategy and business development at Innate Pharma, in the statement. “By incorporating various tumor antigen binders, NK cell engagers are a versatile technology that may provide new options for patients and offer clinical benefit across multiple cancers, while also maintaining a good safety profile.”

ANKET, which stands for antibody-based NK engager therapeutics, is a technology designed to develop molecules that trigger synthetic immunity against cancer. NK cells, a type of immune cell, are often much lower in number in cancer tissues which can contribute to cancer growth. By boosting the number of NK cells and enhancing their anti-cancer properties, NK cell technology is considered a “rising star in cancer treatment.”