AstraZeneca has confirmed that it is in talks to buy privately held US/Dutch clinical stage biopharma Acerta Pharma, in a deal speculated to be worth around $5 billion.

The rumour mill was running in full force over the weekend over the potential tie-up after a report in the Wall Street Journal, which cited people familiar with the matter, claiming that the UK drugmaker was seeking to beef up its pipeline by taking the firm under its wing. 

AZ is seemingly keen on securing access to Acerta’s lead experimental cancer drug acalabrutinib, which is being tested in a variety of leukaemia’s, lymphomas and other cancers, and alongside Merck & Co’s immunotherapy Keytruda (pembrolizumab).

The drug is a BTK inhibitor with a mode of action similar to AbbVie/Johnson & Johnson’s blood cancer drug Imbruvica (ibrutinib), which is widely expected to rake in peak sales in excess of $5 billion. 

Early clinical data looks promising; results from a Phase I/II study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a 95 percent response rate in patients with relapsed chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, the most prevalent form of adult leukaemia. 

“The data is very exciting. What is particularly remarkable is how well patients are tolerating this therapy,” said Dr Byrd, corresponding author and principal investigator of the study. “BTK inhibitors are transforming CLL from an incurable to a chronic disease, especially considering that standard CLL therapies typically produce a 35-40 percent response rate in this disease setting.”

In a brief statement, AZ said it is exploring potential strategic options with Acerta, but stressed “there can be no certainty that any transaction will ultimately be entered into, or as to the terms of any transaction”.

Last month the company announced plans to buy US biotech ZS Pharma for $2.7 billion, gaining access to its flagship cardiovascular compound, a potential best-in-class treatment for hyperkalaemia - a condition characterised by elevated levels of potassium in the blood linked with increased mortality in chronic kidney disease and coronary heart failure.