Shire has continued its expansion into rare diseases by acquiring Sweden's Premacure, which is developing a treatment for a potentially blinding eye disorder that affects premature babies.

Privately-held Premacure has been developing a protein replacement therapy, currently in Phase II, for the prevention of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). The latter is one of the most common causes of visual loss in childhood and Shire notes in preterm infants (born before 31 weeks), the early separation from the maternal circulation results in a loss of specific growth factors, such as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), that are believed to result in lifelong complications, including ROP.

Shire hopes the new therapy can restore the IGF-1 levels in the preterm infant to those found during normal in utero development. The firm said the deal takes it into a new therapeutic area - neonatology - "while maintaining its focus on developing novel therapies for the treatment of rare diseases with high unmet medical need".

Each year some 14,000-16,000 preterm infants in the USA are affected by some degree of ROP and in 1,100-1,500 of these cases, the disorder is severe enough to require medical treatment; consequently 400-600 infants become legally blind.

The companies gave no details about the financials of the deal and Shire limited itself to saying it will make an upfront payment and more cash  based on "pre-specified development and commercial milestones".

The acquisition takes Shire into the new area of neonatology - the treatment of sick or premature newborn infants - and expands its already substantial presence in rare diseases. The deal was announced by incoming chief executive Flemming Ornskov who said "this investigational protein has the potential to provide a first-in-class treatment that may minimise the development and impact of complications arising from ROP".