Belgium's UCB and US drugmaker Biogen Idec have entered a global collaboration to jointly develop and commercialize CDP323 for the treatment of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and other potential indications.

The orally-active small-molecule alpha-4 integrin inhibitor is expected to enter Phase II clinical trials next year, and comes at a time when companies around the world are vying to bring an oral treatment for MS to market and compete with current injectable products.

Under the terms of the deal, UCB will receive upfront and additional payments for development and commercial milestones in excess of $200 million and, says Biogen Idec, will also "contribute significantly" to clinical costs for Phase II and Phase III studies, while all costs and profits will be shared equally.

Biogen Idec already has a major MS franchise with its injectable drug Avonex (interferon beta-1a), and is desperate not be left behind in the race to bring an oral drug for the disease to market. It already has a project in place via its recent purchase of Fumapharm for an oral MS drug, BG-12, which is in Phase II testing.

Meanwhile, other companies pursuing oral treatments for the disease include: Novartis with FTY720 (fingolimod; Phase III); Serono with Mylinax (cladribine) in Phase III testing; Teva's laniquimod (Phase II); Sanofi-Aventis with teriflunomide (Phase II); and GlaxoSmithKline/Tanabe with 683699 (Phase II). Datamonitor has predicted that the first company to reach the market will have an almost guaranteed blockbuster on its hands.