Sanofi is funding two years of research at biotech companies Evotec AG and Apeiron Biologics AG aimed at developing a cancer treatment that turns the body’s own immune cells against tumors. Christian Hartmann

Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi is partnering with two biotech companies -- Evotec AG in Hamburg, Germany, and Apeiron Biologics AG in Vienna, Austria – in its latest effort to develop a drug that harnesses the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer. The focus of the new collaboration will be on a first-in-class treatment that takes aim at tumors and cancers of the blood by boosting the function of white blood cells, known as lymphocytes.

This strategy, known as immuno-oncology, turns the body’s own immune system against cancer cells and represents an emerging area of drug development. Already, major pharmaceutical companies including Merck, Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to the idea and launched several treatments known as PD-1 inhibitors that work in this manner. Others, such as Sanofi, are eager to get in the game.

“Immuno-oncology has emerged as a particularly promising field to create potentially curative treatment options for many cancer patients,” Victoria Richon, a vice president and head of cancer research for Sanofi, said in a statement. ”Our partnership with experts at Evotec and Apeiron Biologics will help us take the next step toward realizing the full value of these innovative treatments.”

As part of the new agreement, Sanofi will pay the two biotech companies up to 200 million euros, or $219 million, each over two years to research, develop and commercialize treatments, plus additional royalties once these drugs hit the market.

The announcement comes on the heels of Sanofi’s $2 billion deal with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. that pays Regeneron to develop an immuno-oncology treatment that is already in its pipeline. In that deal, the companies will split the profits of any drugs that debut from the collaboration.