Eisai has signed a licensing deal with fellow Japanese firm SymBio Pharmaceuticals to co-develop and commercialise the cancer therapy bendamustine in Japan.

Under the terms of the agreement, SymBio will receive upfront and development milestone payments of up to 4 billion yen, around $36.4 million. Bendamustine has been used in Germany for many years as a treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and Cephalon has been selling the drug under the trade name Treanda in the USA since April this year for CLL.

In Japan, the drug is currently being investigated in patients with low-grade NHL, “and is in the pivotal stage of clinical development prior to submission for approval”, the companies said. The estimated annual incidence of NHL in Japan is approximately 15,000, they added, “and it is well-known that a large number of these patients are prone to relapse after responding to initial treatment, making further treatment difficult even though the overall survival period tends to be long”. In addition, the companies plan to move forward with the development of several target indications.

The deal is the latest attempt by Eisai to boost its oncology operations and comes on the back of its $3.9 billion acquisition of the US biotechnology firm firm MGI Pharma. In 2006, it acquired four oncology products and then bought another US firm Morphotek.