AstraZeneca bets $7B on Acerta's potential blockbuster cancer treatment

AstraZeneca ($AZN) is buying big into the promise of Acerta Pharma's in-development blood cancer therapy, signing on to buy a majority stake in the company in a deal that could be worth up to $7 billion.

Under the agreement, AstraZeneca is trading $2.5 billion up front for 55% of Acerta, whose star cancer drug is now in Phase III. AstraZeneca has promised another $1.5 billion due either on the approval of that drug, acalabrutinib, or in 2018, whichever comes first. And after that, shareholders in the privately held Acerta would have the option of selling the other 45% of the company to AstraZeneca for $3 billion more.

The deal, expected to close in the first quarter of 2016, gives AstraZeneca an asset that management believes could bring in $5 billion a year at its peak. Acalabrutinib is a so-called BTK inhibitor, designed to interrupt the signaling process that B-cell cancers use to proliferate. Imbruvica, a drug marketed by Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and AbbVie ($ABBV), works the same way and has posted excellent clinical results in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, mantle cell lymphoma and a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

For AstraZeneca, the deal follows through on CEO Pascal Soriot's pledge to expand the company's focus on oncology. Last year, the company promised to grow its revenue to $45 billion by 2023, with about $12 billion of that coming from its most advanced cancer assets. AstraZeneca has since found some clinical and regulatory success in oncology, and buying into Acerta is an effort to broaden its shots on goal in the field, Soriot said.

"Acalabrutinib provides us with a small-molecule presence in blood cancers to complement our existing immunotherapy approach, in collaboration with Celgene in hematological malignancies," Soriot said in a statement.

Acerta is now pushing acalabrutinib through 21 clinical trials, testing the drug alongside and against other therapies in a wide range of blood cancers and solid tumors.

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