French biotechnology company NicOx has licensed rights to a series of blood pressure-lowering drugs to Merck & Co in a deal valued at up to 286 million euros ($347m).

NicOx and Merck had already been collaborating on research into antihypertensive drugs based on the French firm’s nitric oxide-donating technology, but have now firmed up this relationship. NicOx will receive an upfront payment of 9 million euros, with further 279 million euros possible if the development of the drugs goes according to plan.

This is the second major licensing deal for NicOx in as many weeks, and provides further evidence of the commercial potential of the firm’s NO technology. Earlier this month, NicOx signed a $385 million deal with Pfizer for an NO-donating drug for the eye disease glaucoma.

Both the Merck and Pfizer agreements apply to drugs which are have not yet reached the clinical stage of development, and provide further evidence of the escalating cost of licensing deals, which have risen seven-fold over the last five years, according to a recent report.

Sets foundations for NicOx salesforce

The agreement covers NO-donating derivatives of several major classes of drug for high blood pressure. The US drugmaker has exclusive rights to develop and sell the drugs, with NicOx retaining co-promotion rights in the USA and certain European countries, which it said was a critical part of its strategy to develop its own sales and marketing activities, in addition to receiving royalties on any eventual sales.

Research conducted to date in animals suggests that combining NicOx’ NO-donating groups to currently-marketed antihypertensive drugs can boost their blood pressure-lowering activity.

The French company also stressed that there is no conflict between the Merck deal and its development of HCT 3012, an NO-donating version of the anti-inflammatory drug naproxen in Phase III testing for osteoarthritis. HCT 3012 is also being developed for patients with both arthritis and high blood pressure.

For Merck, this is the second major licensing agreement aimed at bolstering its pipeline in as many days. Earlier the firm signed a $475m deal to license a painkiller from Canada’s Neuromed Pharmaceuticals.