Ligand Pharmaceuticals of the USA, faced with rising losses and slow sales growth, has taken the decision to sell off a raft of its marketed products as part of an ongoing effort to trim down the company.

Eisai of Japan has bought exclusive rights to four cancer-related treatments from Ligand for $205 million, while King Pharmaceuticals swooped on once-daily painkiller Avinza (morphine sulfate), formerly partnered with Organon, in a $313 million transaction.

King will also assume a product-related liability payment of $48 million, and will pay Ligand royalties on sales of Avinza, which had sales of around $179 million in 2005.

Ligand saw its chief executive David Robinson resign last month after a vocal critic of the firm’s management, hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, won a seat on the board. He was replaced by interim CEO Henry Blissenbach.

Eisai deal accelerates plans in cancer

Eisai is acquiring rights to 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.

For Eisai the deal represents a beachhead into the area of oncology as it does not yet have any cancer drugs on the market. However, the Japanese firm does have a development pipeline in this sector with E7389 for breast cancer in Phase III testing, as well as earlier-stage trials in other solid tumours such as NSCLC and prostate cancer, and E7070 for stomach cancer.

Eisai is pushing into cancer as part of a drive to reduce its reliance on top-selling brands Aricept (donepezil) for Alzheimer’s disease and gastrointestinal drug Aciphex (rabeprazole sodium). The company has said it plans to boost its annual sales in March 2012 to 1,00 billion yen ($8.6bn), mainly by boosting overseas sales, and sees the performance of new cancer drugs as a central pillar of that strategy.