Novartis has exercised an option giving it global development and commercialisation rights to an experimental drug being developed by US biotech Conatus for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a progressive form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Emricasan, a first-in-class, oral, pan-caspase inhibitor which has also shown potential in advanced fibrosis and cirrhosis, is currently being tested by Conatus in a Phase IIb clinical trial (ENCORE-LF) involving patients with NASH.

If this proves successful, Novartis will then take the drug into Phase III studies to evaluate its potential either as a single agent or in combination one of its own FXR agonists in development for chronic liver diseases.

The firm says the collaboration has the potential to expand treatment options for people in various stages of fatty liver disease, where no approved medicines currently exist.

The move also comes hot on the heels of a clinical collaboration with Allergan that will test a combination of a Novartis FXR agonist and Allergan's cenicriviroc (CVC) for the treatment of NASH with liver fibrosis in a Phase II trial.

Both collaborations “continue to support the growing Novartis portfolio to develop new therapies in chronic liver diseases, including NASH,” the Swiss drug giant noted.

NASH is expected to be the leading cause of liver transplants in the US by 2020.