BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - NicOx SA and Merck & Co. Inc. signed an agreement allowing Merck to evaluate certain nitric oxide-donating compounds under NicOx's intellectual property rights.

The agreement provides for NicOx, of Sophia Antipolis, to provide Merck, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., with NO-donating compounds for evaluation in a preclinical testing program covering an undisclosed therapeutic area.

The deal gives Merck exclusive rights for a fixed period of time to license selected lead compounds identified in the program. If Merck exercises the option, it would pay NicOx an initial license fee for drug candidates, plus success-related milestones and royalties. Merck also would fund the development and commercialization of successful drug compounds on a worldwide basis.

Other terms and conditions of the agreement were not disclosed.

The CEO of NicOx, Michele Garufi, welcomed the deal, describing it as "a strong endorsement of our leading position in nitric oxide-donating technology that underlines the growing interest of the pharmaceutical industry in our research." He added that other partnerships might be forthcoming.

The deal comes at a time when NicOx is awaiting the final decision from AstraZeneca plc, of London, concerning the continuation of their collaboration. NicOx and AstraZeneca are co-developing AZD 3582, a COX-inhibiting nitric oxide-donating drug, for the treatment of acute and chronic nociceptive pain under agreements signed in 1998 and 2002.

Following a Phase II trial of AZD 3582, the companies issued a statement in February indicating that the drug "did not reach its primary endpoint with respect to gastro-intestinal ulcers." However, NicOx regarded the conclusion as premature and incomplete. After undertaking its own review of the results, it came to the conclusion that AZD 3582 had been active against ulcers but that the trial protocol did not enable a statistically significant result to be obtained.

The complete trial results are due to be published before the end of August. AstraZeneca will decide whether to continue development of AZD 3582 for the treatment of gastrointestinal ulcers based on those results. At the end of June, Garufi warned that if AstraZeneca dropped the development of AZD 3582 in its gastroenterological indication, NicOx might seek to merge with another company. However, the NicOx CEO said he thought there was "an 80 percent chance" that AstraZeneca would continue the collaboration.