AstraZeneca in talks with Dutch cancer drugs firm Acerta Pharma

British phamaceuticals giant AstraZeneca is in discussions with cancer drug maker Acerta Pharma over a potential deal.

The FTSE 100 company said today that "further to recent speculation, AstraZeneca confirms that it is exploring potential strategic options with Acerta Pharma BV".

The statement came after the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Astra was in advanced talks to buy Dutch firm Acerta for more than $5bn (£3.29bn).

However, a spokesman for AstraZeneca added: "There can be no certainty that any transaction will ultimately be entered into, or as to the terms of any transaction."

Acerta has offices in the Netherlands and the US. The biotechnology company develops treatments for several types of cancer and autoimmune diseases which would complement Astra's own oncology portfolio.

Astra's interest in Acerta is said to be tied to Acerta’s experimental drug acalabrutinib, a rival of Johnson & Johnson and AbbVie’s Imbruvica.

The medicine shows promise against an incurable form of leukemia as well as auto-immune diseases such as lupus.

Like Imbruvica, acalabrutinib belongs to a class of drugs called Burton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors. It’s now in the most advanced phase of clinical tests. In an earlier trial, it worked on a deadly form of leukemia with milder side effects than Imbruvica.

Other drugmakers developing BTK inhibitors are Eli Lilly & Co together with Hanmi Pharmaceutical and Germany’s Merck KGaA. Accordingly, some analysts believe Acerta could become the subject of a bidding war.

AstraZeneca, which rejected a takeover bid from US giant Pfizer last year, is seeking to rebuild its portfolio of exclusive medicines amid intense competition from generic drugmakers as many of its key drugs have gone off-patent.

Just last month, Astra agreed to buy ZS Pharma for $2.7bn in cash, giving it access to the company's treatment for a deadly blood condition which could lead to blockbuster sales. Shortly thereafter, AstraZeneca agreed a deal with French pharmaceutical company Sanofi to share data for free in the hope that it could lead to breakthrough treatments for disease. The advantage of this deal was that AstraZeneca and Sanofi were effectively diversifying and restocking their respective pipelines without the need to shell out tens of millions of pounds.

This has been a tough year for AstraZeneca. The US dollar, the currency in which it reports, has strengthened against the euro and emerging market currencies, in which it does business. It has also suffered a handful of setbacks in clinical trials. AstraZeneca last week won a battle to give British patients access to one of its ground-breaking ovarian cancer drugs, olaparib, but only after agreeing to part-fund the scheme.

 14 Dec 2015

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