Merck hands back heart-drug rights to struggling Cardiome

Merck ($MRK) wants to completely sever ties with Cardiome Pharma's ($CRME) treatment vernakalant, as the major drugmaker has decided to return global marketing and development rights to both oral and now IV forms of the atrial fibrillation med, the companies revealed today. Vancouver-based Cardiome has already made moves to ax most of its staff after Merck told the company earlier this year that it would no longer pursue development of the oral form of the drug.

Cardiome has no drugs in human clinical trials other than vernakalant, which has an approval in Europe, where it's marketed as Brinavess, according to the group's website. The program to develop the drug in North America didn't make the cut at Merck as the Whitehouse Station, NJ-based pharma giant pursues a pipeline of other cardio meds.

In the wake of Merck's earlier decision to cease development of the oral form of the med, Cardiome announced it would cut 85% of its staff in July. The loss of the Merck partnership is an obvious setback for Cardiome, but the company's interim CEO Dr. William Hunter suggested in a press release that his team hasn't given up on the program. (Former CEO Doug Janzen revealed his departure shortly before announcement of the staff reductions.)  

"Cardiome looks forward to continued advancement of the launch of Brinavess IV worldwide and welcomes the opportunity to continue development of vernakalant oral worldwide and vernakalant IV in North America," Hunter said in a statement. "We thank Merck for its contribution to the Vernakalant program and anticipate a smooth transition for the physicians and patients who rely on Brinavess."

Cardiome's shares have fallen into penny-stock territory this year, during which the price has dropped more than 80%, according to Google Finance. Its stock price was up 14% to 42 cents per share as of 9:56 a.m. ET today.

- here's the release
- see Reuters' article