Sorrento Therapeutics (SRNE.Q -16.67%) made another committment toward developing new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines on Friday. The company has entered into a letter of intent to acquire privately held SmartPharm Therapeutics and its pipeline of non-viral gene therapies. The deal is expected to close next month; financial terms weren't disclosed.

Gene therapies generally rely on viral vectors to deliver genetic material, but this procedure adds a thick layer of complexity to the manufacturing process. Reactions are rare, but unexpected immune responses are another issue for viral-vector technology. SmartPharm's approach involves delivering strands of DNA and messenger RNA directly to cells with simple injections that don't involve any viral vectors.

Healthcare provider holding a coronavirus vial.

Image source: Getty Images.

In March, Sorrento and SmartPharm began collaborating on injectable gene therapies that lead to the production of antibodies originally discovered by Sorrento to fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The first candidate to enter clinical trials using SmartPharm's delivery technology will most likely be based on STI-1499, which is currently miles behind the front runners in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. The company still hasn't submitted an investigational new drug application (IND) for STI-1499 or the version to be encoded on a DNA plasmid injection called STI-1499dpi.

An approved IND is a pre-requisite to begin clinical trials in the U.S., and the company doesn't plan to submit an application until next month for STI-1499. There's still no telling when STI-1499dpi will be ready for its first human proof-of-concept trial.