Having just signed an antifungal deal with Anacor Pharmaceuticals, Schering-Plough is putting itself forward as a partner of choice for bigger alliances within the pharmaceutical sector.

After signing a flurry of somewhat small licensing deals over the last year, chief executive Fred Hassan said that “we have the organisational strength and financial headroom to pursue potentially even bigger opportunities that may have a good long-term strategic fit for our growing company."

The pact with privately-held Anacor is for the development and commercialisation of AN2690, a topical antifungal therapy which is currently in Phase II trials for onychomycosis, a fungal infection of the nail and nail bed that affects 7%-10% of the US population. Under the terms of the agreement, Anacor will receive a $40 million upfront payment and a $10 million financing commitment from S-P, while development, regulatory and commercial milestones could exceed $575 million.

In addition, Anacor will receive double-digit royalty payments on future sales and while S-P will assume all the costs for the drug's development, for onychomycosis and any other indications, the Palo Alto, California-based group retains an option to co-promote the treatment in the USA to dermatologists.

Goal is to have half of pipeline from other labs

Mr Hassan said that the addition of AN2690 “builds on our growing strength in anti-infective treatment” and is “another step in our strategy of accessing external innovations that extend our existing areas of strength in R&D and in customer relationships.” In particular, he claimed that

the firm’s goal “is to see approximately half of our pipeline consist of innovations from other companies' labs.”

Since the turn of year, S-P has signed a deal with Danish drugmaker ALK-Abello to develop and sell its tablet-based allergy immunotherapies in the USA, Canada and Mexico, while an agreement was also announced with OraSure to promote the rapid oral test for the detection of antibodies to the hepatitis C virus using the latter’s OraQuick technology platform. Just before Christmas, S-P licensed worldwide rights to a new oral hepatitis B drug, pradefovir, currently in Phase II and being developed by Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Metabasis Therapeutics.

On the surface these deals may not be the biggest but Mr Hassan says that they “illustrate that we are focused on bringing in products that have a strong strategic fit with our current operations.”

The firm’s recent track record backs up Mr Hassan’s view that the company can handle bigger projects if the joint venture with Merck & Co for the cholesterol-lowerers Zetia (ezetimibe) and Vytorin (ezetimibe and simvastatin) is anything to go by, as the drugs made $1.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 2006 alone. Also last August, it teamed up with Swiss giant Novartis in a deal which is aiming to deliver a once-daily, fixed-dose treatment for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The inhaled product would combine S-P's inhaled steroid Asmanex (mometasone furoate) with a novel beta agonist, indacaterol (QAB149), developed by Novartis.