Novartis has gained exclusive rights to develop a potential first-in-class hepatitis C treatment from fellow Swiss firm Debiopharm.

The antiviral agent in question is called Debio 025 (alisporivir). It is the first in a new class of drugs called cyclophilin inhibitors which, Novartis claims, ”could become part of the future standard of care for the disease”, which affects more than 170 million people worldwide.

The deal gives Novartis exclusive worldwide development and marketing rights to the drug (excluding Japan), which is currently in Phase IIb trials. Financial details have not been disclosed but the agreement involves an upfront payment to Debiopharm, plus milestones and royalties.

David Epstein, the new chief executive of Novartis Pharma, said that hepatitis C is sometimes referred to as a 'silent epidemic' because the virus can lie dormant in the body for years or even decades before the symptoms become apparent. He added that Debio 025 could prove an important step forward “by significantly enhancing the efficacy of existing therapy that forms the standard of care for hepatitis C”, which is peginterferon alfa-2a plus ribavirin.

Novartis added that there is an urgent need for more effective medications, often used in combination, “as current therapy is only effective in around 50% of patients with the most prevalent form of the virus, called genotype 1”. The deal comes a couple of months after the Basel-headquartered major filed the hepatitis C treatment Joulferon/Zalbin (albinterferon alfa-2b) for European and US regulatory approval.