Novartis has increased its stake in Austrian biotechnology firm Intercell and signed a deal worth at least 270 million euros to get access to a number of promising vaccines.

The Swiss healthcare giant says that the agreement involves several unpartnered projects in the existing Intercell R&D portfolio, which currently includes more than 10 potential schemes for which Novartis may choose for further development. It has also secured opt-in rights to all future vaccine candidates discovered by Intercell during the long-term collaboration.

Under the terms of the deal, Novartis will make an upfront payment of 270 million euros to Intercell for exclusive opt-in rights “for any existing unpartnered vaccine project or any future projects following the completion of Phase II clinical trials”. This sum includes the purchase of 4.8 million new Intercell shares “at a premium to the market price”, which will increase its equity stake in the Austrian firm to 16.1% from the current 6.1% acquired at the time of a marketing and distribution agreement signed in 2006 with Intercell for IC51, a vaccine currently in Phase III trials for use in preventing infections from the Japanese Encephalitis virus.

Among the various projects are the IC43 vaccine candidate for use in patients with hospital-acquired pseudomonas infections, which is now in Phase II trials and will expand the range of nosocomial vaccines in the Novartis pipeline, and the pre-clinical vaccine IC47 against pneumonia infections in the elderly and infants. The firms noted that the alliance will specifically focus on the development of vaccines derived from Intercell's Antigen Identification Program, including IC31 adjuvant technology and they claimed that the AIP approach “is complementary to the Reverse Vaccinology system used by Novartis, which selects vaccine candidates based on highly-conserved antigen sequences”.

Novartis has also gained exclusive rights to further develop the next-generation IC31 adjuvant for use in enhancing the effectiveness of influenza vaccines and a compound formulated with this adjuvant began Phase I trials in June this year. Rights have also been gained to develop IC31 in other disease areas.

Medical Nutrition sale to Nestle completed

Meantime, Novartis noted that it has completed the sale of its Medical Nutrition business to fellow Swiss firm Nestle for $2.5 billion, “one of the final steps in a divestment programme to focus the group's strategy on healthcare with pharmaceuticals at the core”. The very last step,

the divestment of the Gerber baby foods business, also to Nestle, is expected to be completed this year.