Less than four months after deciding to end efforts to get approvals for cladribine, Merck KGaA has signed a deal to get access to another oral multiple sclerosis treatment, this time from Japan's Ono Pharmaceutical Co.

The agreement gives the German firm's Merck Serono unit worldwide exclusive rights for the development and commercialisation of ONO-4641 outside of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The compound is an oral investigational sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) receptor modulator which is currently in Phase II for MS.

Under the terms of the deal, Ono will receive 1.5 billion yen (about 14 million euros) as an upfront fee, plus additional payments based on certain development, regulatory and commercial milestones. No further financial terms are disclosed.

Stefan Oschmann, the head of Merck Serono, said the unit "is committed to building on our leadership franchise in MS and we are excited about adding a potential oral treatment" to its pipeline". He added that Ono will bring a wealth of experience in developing innovative therapies and understanding regulatory requirements in Japan.”

Merck already sells the MS blockbuster Rebif (interferon beta-1a) and last month signed a licensing deal for Peptimmune's PI-2301, a second-generation peptide copolymer, ie a new form of Texa's big-selling MS drug Copaxone (glatiramer acetate). However it has abandoned its own MS pill cladribine after regulators on both sides of the Atlantic rejected the drug.

Meantime, Ono has obtained co-development and co- marketing rights in Japan for Merck's cancer vaccine Stimuvax which is in Phase III for non-small cell lung cancer. In return, the Osaka-based group is paying an upfront fee of 5 million euros.