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BioNTech Inks Cancer-Focused Deal After Covid-19 Vaccine Success

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BioNTech

BNTX 6.51%

SE, the company behind one of the most widely used vaccines against Covid-19, has agreed to acquire a U.S. manufacturing plant from Kite, a unit of

Gilead Sciences Inc.,

GILD -1.06%

in a deal aimed at strengthening its core business of developing cutting-edge cancer therapies.

The deal focuses on Kite’s research, development and manufacturing activities relating to neoantigen T-cell receptor cell therapy, an experimental form of cancer treatment. BioNTech said it would acquire Kite’s neoantigen TCR cell therapy research and development platform, and a manufacturing facility comprising 50 employees in Gaithersburg, Md. The companies didn’t disclose the financial terms.

BioNTech shot to fame for the Covid-19 vaccine that it co-developed with

Pfizer Inc.,

the first shot authorized for use in the U.S. and Europe. But its main focus before the pandemic had been developing personalized cancer therapies that harness the body’s own immune system.

Among the approaches it was investigating were so-called mRNA vaccines aimed at training the body’s immune system to fight tumors. These vaccines are based on genetic material containing the instructions for key proteins linked to the virus or cancer cell in question.

Early in the pandemic, BioNTech quickly pivoted to aim that technology at the new virus. The resulting vaccine was developed at breakneck speed and became its first, and so far only, authorized product. That work transformed BioNTech from relative obscurity to one of the best-known companies in the world.

The technology at the heart of the Kite deal is another way of boosting the immune system. It involves genetically modifying a person’s own T-cells, a type of immune cell, to make them more powerful at detecting and killing tumors. They work in a similar way to so-called CAR-T therapies, several of which have proven themselves in treating various forms of blood cancer.

BioNTech is in the early stages of trialing a neoantigen TCR cell therapy against melanoma and other solid tumors in partnership with Genentech, a division of

Roche Holding AG

. The Kite deal will help BioNTech build on that work.

Although cancer has long been BioNTech’s primary focus, it is also working on mRNA vaccines against infectious diseases. Its relationship with Pfizer began in 2018 as a collaboration to develop an mRNA vaccine against influenza.

For Kite’s part, the deal will help it to focus on its work on CAR-T cell therapies, said Chief Executive

Christi Shaw.

Kite already sells two CAR-T cell therapies, Yescarta and Tecartus, directed against certain difficult-to-treat blood cancers. It is also trialing those products against other forms of blood cancer.

Write to Denise Roland at Denise.Roland@wsj.com

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