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Slicing and Dicing Your Way through Drug Development

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It slices. It dices. Aeterna Zentaris (Nasdaq: AEZS  ) is beginning to sound a lot like an infomercial.

Not that it's a bad thing; you'd be surprised how well those things sell.

The drug developer announced today that it licensed the Japanese rights to perifosine, its lead cancer drug, to Yakult Honsha. Aeterna Zentaris will get $8.3 million up front, and there's potential for $60.9 million in payments if clinical and regulatory milestones in Japan are reached. If it makes it to market, Aeterna Zentaris will make money supplying perifosine to Yakult Honsha as well as receiving double-digit royalties on sales in Japan.

Aeterna Zentaris has already out-licensed perifosine to Keryx Biopharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: KERX  ) in North America and to Handok in Korea. The company owns rights to the rest of the world, but there's really just one more major market left to be served: Europe.

Slicing and dicing now, while the drug is still in phase 3 trials, is the best move for Aeterna Zentaris. Sure, it could have gotten much better terms with phase 3 data in hand, but signing up Yakult Honsha now will give the company a head start in setting up any trials the Japanese government may want.

Most importantly, though, cash in hand is always helpful for drug developers and could push back any dilutive financing that might come in the future.

Perifosine is being tested in colorectal cancer and in multiple myeloma. In both cases, it's being tested in combination with a drug that's already on the market: Roche's Xeloda for colorectal cancer and Millennium Pharmaceuticals' Velcade for multiple myeloma. That's a good strategy since perifosine won't have to compete against current treatments if Aeterna Zentaris can show that the drug improves the outcome when used in combination.

For colorectal cancer, Aeterna Zentaris is going after very sick patients who have failed multiple drugs such as Roche's Avastin, Amgen's (Nasdaq: AMGN  ) Vectibix, and Erbitux from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) and Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY  ) . There may be fewer patients at the end of the disease progression, but there's also less competition.

Obviously the clinical outcomes for perifosine will be the driver for Aeterna Zentaris, but I'm sold on today's move. At the very least, the deal gives the company a little more breathing room should the drug fail.

Interested in keeping track of Aeterna Zentaris as it develops perifosine and the rest of its pipeline? Click here to add it to My Watchlist, which will help you keep track of all our Foolish analysis on Aeterna Zentaris.

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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