AstraZeneca has hit the acquisition trail again to buy US firm Pearl Therapeutics, which focuses on the development of inhaled drugs for respiratory disease.

The principal attraction of privately-owned Pearl is that it has a late-stage drug for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. PT003 is a fixed dose combination of formoterol fumarate, a long-acting beta-2-agonist (LABA) and glycopyrrolate, a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA) and AstraZeneca notes that "LABA/LAMA combinations are expected to become an important new class of treatment for COPD". 

A Phase III programme has been initiated to look at the improvement in lung function in people with moderate to severe COPD in response to PT003. The latter is delivered by inhalation via a pressurised metered dose inhaler using Pearl’s co-suspension formulation technology and this could be used "to explore combinations of existing and novel technologies", including a triple fixed dose combination - a LABA/LAMA and inhaled corticosteroid combo known as PT010 - which could be accelerated into Phase II.

Cashwise, AstraZeneca will pay $560 million upfront and up to $450 million if specified development and regulatory milestones in respect of any triple combination therapies and future products using Pearl’s technology platform. Sales-related payments could also add a further $140 million to the price.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said that COPD continues to increase worldwide "and there is a growing need for the next generation of inhaled combination products". He added that Pearl's technology, "together with its development products and specialist expertise are a great complement to AstraZeneca’s long-established capabilities in respiratory disease, one of our core therapy areas".

Dr Soriot concluded by saying that "combined with our on-market portfolio, including Symbicort (budesonide/formoterol), and our strong pipeline, the agreement will enable us to offer further distinctive treatment options across the full spectrum of COPD and asthma to patients, physicians and payers". The acquisition, which should close in the third quarter, will have no impact on AstraZeneca’s financial guidance for 2013.

Commenting on the deal, Panmure Gordon analyst Savvas Neophytou said that "some might choke on the price of the asset, but to us AstraZeneca's acquisition of Pearl was strategically important and had to be done". He adds that the firm's respiratory business corresponds to some 16% of revenues "and its pipeline was threadbare in our view".

He concluded by saying that "with one big hole plugged, we are warming to the story once more".