By Caroline Copley
ZURICH (Reuters) - Novartis has signed a licensing deal to hand over its experimental tuberculosis (TB) drugs to the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, joining a growing Big Pharma retreat from antibiotics.
The TB Alliance deal reflects renewed scrutiny of the Novartis portfolio under new chairman Joerg Reinhardt, who is focusing the Swiss company's research on core areas such as cancer, respiratory drugs, heart failure and dermatology.
While scientists are exploring novel avenues in the hunt for urgently needed new bacteria-fighting medicines, many companies now have little appetite for the chase, preferring to concentrate on more lucrative areas such as cancer and diabetes.
"Novartis is not really focused on anti-infectives, so I think it makes sense," Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Fabian Wenner said of the licensing deal.
Under the terms of Wednesday's agreement, TB Alliance will fund further research and development and be responsible for seeking approval and commercializing the TB treatments discovered at the Novartis Institute for Tropical Disease.
NO UPFRONT PAYMENT
"The goal of this agreement is to enable the program to be successful and bring needed medicines to patients," Novartis said in an emailed statement, adding that it had not asked for any upfront or milestone payments.
Among the drugs Novartis is licensing is a class of medicines known as indolcarboxamides, which target drug resistant and multi-resistant strains of TB. One of the compounds, NITD304, works by blocking a protein that is essential for the TB bacterium's survival.
"TB Alliance is well placed to take our discoveries and compounds through development for the benefit of patients with TB," said Mark Fishman, head of research at Novartis.
More than 8.6 million people fall sick with TB each year leading to more than 1.3 million deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
The emergence of totally resistant forms of the lung infection is posing a further challenge to healthcare systems, particularly in developing countries.
Treating TB is a long process. Patients need to take a cocktail of antibiotics for six months and many fail to complete the treatment, which serves to fuel growing drug resistance.
Novartis said it would continue to pursue research and development for specific anti-infectives, including treatments for parasitic diseases such as malaria, as well as viral diseases such as dengue fever.
(Editing by David Goodman)