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AstraZeneca to buy Acerta for US$4b, adding cancer drug

[PARIS] AstraZeneca Plc agreed to buy a 55 per cent stake in Acerta Pharma BV for $4 billion that will give the UK drugmaker a potential blockbuster medicine for blood cancers as well as diseases in which the body attacks itself.

AstraZeneca will pay US$2.5 billion upfront, and another US$1.5 billion when closely held Acerta's experimental drug acalabrutinib is approved by a regulator or at the end of 2018, whichever comes first, the London-based drugmaker said in a statement on Thursday. It also has the option to buy the remainder of Acerta for about US$3 billion if shareholders want to sell.

AstraZeneca chief executive officer Pascal Soriot is hunting for promising new medicines after turning down a deal with Pfizer last year. Acerta's acalabrutinib, a rival of Johnson & Johnson and AbbVie's Imbruvica, shows promise against an incurable form of leukemia as well as auto-immune diseases such as lupus. Just yesterday AstraZeneca announced two transactions designed to beef up its operations in China and Japan.

The deal brings AstraZeneca a "a late-stage, potential best-in-class medicine that could transform treatment for patients across a range of blood cancers," Soriot said in the statement.

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Like Imbruvica, acalabrutinib belongs to a class of drugs called Burton's tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which work by blocking the BTK enzyme from promoting proliferation and survival of malignant cells. 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.

Imbruvica, a pill first approved by US regulators in 2013, is projected to be a blockbuster with sales surpassing US$1 billion for J&J as soon as next year. Annual revenue from that drug will reach US$4.07 billion by 2020, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.