Merck snags Astellas' U.S. rights to IV vernakalant

Shares of Cardiome Pharma spiked 30% on Tuesday evening as news spread that Merck snapped up the U.S. rights Astellas had held for the IV formulation of vernakalant, a treatment for acute atrial fibrillation originally developed at the Canadian biotech. The news was applauded by analysts who were happy to see Merck--which already has the rights to the oral formulation--in complete command of a program that it has invested heavily in.

Astellas picked up an undisclosed upfront payment along with milestones. And as Reuters notes, the deal passing along its rights in IV vernakalant allows the Japanese pharma company to devote more R&D resources to urology, transplant-related medicines, infectious diseases and cancer treatments. Vernakalant was approved in the EU last fall.

 "While management was confident Merck was supportive of the vernakalant franchise and that Merck would move the program forward, the market was beginning to doubt Merck's interest due to radio silence regarding the oral program and status of the halted ACT V trial," said RBC Capital's Douglas Miehm, who now expects to see the Phase III study launching in early 2012. Cardiome, which is still on the hook for 25% of the R&D costs, struck its original licensing deal with Astellas back in 2003.

"Atrial fibrillation represents a large and growing unmet medical need," said Dr. Michael Mendelsohn, senior vice president, franchise head, cardiovascular and atherosclerosis research at Merck. "With this agreement, Merck has secured worldwide rights to vernakalant IV."

- check out the release
- here's the Reuters report
- see the story from the Financial Post