Japan’s Eisai has dipped a toe into the acquisitions pool and come out as the purchaser of Morphotek, a US biotechnology firm that specialises in oncology.

Eisai’s North American subsidiary will pay $325 million to get control of the Pennsylvania-based group which discovers and develops monoclonal antibodies for oncology, inflammatory and infectious diseases through the use of its proprietary technology, called Human Morphodoma. The company’s most advanced programs are MORAb-003, in Phase I/II for ovarian cancer, and MORAb-009, in Phase I for pancreatic cancer and it has a number of programmes in the preclinical stage.

The Japanese firm is very excited about the deal and said the acquisition represents a “dramatic leap towards biologic therapeutics.” Chief executive Haruo Naito said that by combining Morphotek's “proprietary technologies and promising therapeutic antibodies with Eisai's existing research programs and infrastructure, we will be able to meet our goal of addressing the unmet medical needs of patients, especially cancer patients.” He added that the US firm's rich pipeline, “technology platform, and highly skilled management and scientific team will become the core of our R&D efforts in biologics."

The addition of Morphotek extends the Japanese drugmaker's presence in the USA, which includes the Eisai Research Institute of Boston, Eisai Medical Research in New Jersey and a facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. It is also another example of Eisai’s desire to become a powerful force in oncology, following on from its acquisition of four cancer-related treatments from Ligand for $205 million last September.

They were Ontak (denileukin diftitox) and Targretin (bexarotene) capsules and gel for T cell lymphoma, and Panretin (alitretinoin) gel, used to treat the AIDS-related skin cancer Kaposi's sarcoma. Ontak is also being developed in combination with Johnson & Johnson/Schering-Plough's Rituxan (rituximab) for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, while Targretin is being tested in other cancers such as non-small cell lung cancer, and severe dermatitis. Eisai also has E7389 for breast cancer in Phase III trials and as the Ligand deal also brought with it a specialist sales force, the firm says it is “well positioned to market new oncology products.”

Eisai’s move into cancer is part of its strategy to reduce reliance on top-selling brands Aricept (donepezil) for Alzheimer's disease and gastrointestinal drug Aciphex (rabeprazole sodium). The deal follows Takeda’s recent purchase of the UK's Paradigm Therapeutics and suggests that Japan’s drugmakers are now ready to embark on further expansion overseas.