Shares in NicOx perked up a little on the news that the French biotechnology firm has expanded its alliance with Merck & Co.

NicOx, which has had a rough time since its pain product naproxcinod was rejected by regulators in the USA in July, has widened its agreement with Merck in 2006 to reflect "the discovery of a new approach to nitric oxide donation during the course of the joint research programme". The firms add that this pathway may be used to develop "new classes of NO-donating new molecular entities designed to offer a different mechanism for controlling the delivery of NO while retaining the potential therapeutic benefits".

Under the revised pact, Merck has the right to develop NMEs using this new approach in certain cardiovascular indications, while NicOx will develop product candidates in other indications. Each firm will pay milestones and royalties to the other partner on products emerging from their respective programmes.

No other information will not be disclosed "for reasons of commercial confidentiality", NicOx said, adding that no further announcements on the compounds developed by Merck are anticipated "unless and until a drug-candidate advances into Phase II clinical studies". Also, each company will be responsible for funding their own R&D costs, so NicOx is not getting any cash windfall.

The Sophia Antipolis-based group did say, however, that this new approach "continues to build on the concept of a slow release of NO with a sustained pharmacological effect at tissue level". How successful the alliance has been to date is debatable, given that the clinical programme evaluating several NO-donating antihypertensives from the original agreement in healthy volunteers and mild to moderate hypertensive patients has now been completed but "none of the compounds tested will be further advanced in development".

Nevertheless, Ennio Ongini, vice president of research at NicOx, argues that the collaboration "has been very fruitful, and it is as a result of the excellent scientific interaction that this new approach to NO donation was discovered". He added that "novel molecules using this approach offer an exciting new alternative route to exploit the biological properties of NO which can potentially be used in a wide range of therapeutic areas".

NicOx shares have taken a thumping since the failure of naproxcinod  but investors seem to be drifting back slowly.