Merck & Co yesterday snapped up private US firm NovaCardia for $350 million to get its hands on the latter's late-stage cardiovascular medicine KW-3902, an adenosine A1 receptor antagonist being studied in Phase III clinical trials in patients with acute congestive heart failure.

“This acquisition delivers on our strategy of targeted acquisitions in areas of unmet medical need in the therapeutic areas of strategic importance for Merck such as cardiovascular diseases," said Richard Kender, vice president of business development and corporate licensing at Merck.

KW-3902, which was acquired in 2003 from Kyowa Hakko Kogyo, works by blocking the constriction of blood flow to the kidneys and inhibiting their reabsorption of salt and water, thereby increasing urine volume and preserving renal function in patients with CHF. To date, says Merck, no other vasodilator has demonstrated this attribute.

Two new pivotal trials now enrolling

Preliminary results from a pilot Phase III trial of KW-3902 were presented at a major medical meeting this year and showed CHF patients in the active therapy group achieved a higher rate of improvement in dyspnea, or shortness of breath – a measure of CHF - compared to placebo receivers. KW-3902 also prevented the deterioration of kidney function that is often experienced by patients undergoing standard treatment. Now, two new multinational pivotal trials, dubbed PROTECT 1 and PROTECT 2, are currently enrolling.

There are nearly 5 million people in the USA with CHF, according to the American Heart Association, and approximately 550,000 new cases reported each year.

NovaCardia will spin out a new company to support clinical development of its second compound, K201 (JTV-519) for atrial fibrillation. Meanwhile, completion of the acquisition is expected to take place in the next 45 days and Merck will also update its financial guidance for the full year in due course.

Once the acquisition is completed, Merck will have three late-stage cardiovascular products in its pipeline, as well as five investigational drugs in early-stage development. And investors were clearly pleased, sending the firm's shares up almost 3% on the news.