In the biggest acquisition of 2008 (and probably 2010 or 2011), Swiss drugmaker Novartis (NYSE: NVS) announced it would be acquiring a stake in ophthalmology specialist Alcon (NYSE: ACL) for up to $39 billion yesterday.

Alcon is best known for its eye-care-related consumer health-care products, medical devices, and pharmaceutical drugs. Novartis is acquiring Alcon in a two-step process from Swiss conglomerate Nestle and will pay about $11 billion in 2008 for Nestle's 25% stake in Alcon, and possibly up to another $28 billion in 2010 or 2011 for Nestle's other 52% stake in Alcon, if Nestle or Novartis exercise an option for Novartis to acquire Nestle's remaining stake in Alcon.

Just grabbing Nestle's shares in a few years will easily give Novartis a controlling stake in Alcon; it doesn't have to acquire the remaining 23% of Alcon from the rest of its shareholders.

Even if the second stage of the Alcon acquisition process fails to go through in the coming years, Novartis will look like a different company with Alcon as either an ally or weaved into its operations, considering that Alcon's largest business segment sells eye-care medical devices and products.

In the past several years, many of the large-cap pharmas have been rejiggering their operations by selling off non-pharmaceutical operations, like Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) did when it sold its consumer health-care business to Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) in 2006 and, more recently, Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) selling off its medical-imaging business. Novartis has been a little different, as it has been steadily adding new businesses with its acquisition of vaccine maker Chiron two years ago and now its stake in Alcon.

With a large voting stake in fellow Swiss drugmaker Roche (and by proxy, Genentech (NYSE: DNA) and Chugai Pharmaceutical), a big stake in Alcon, a burgeoning biogenerics division, as well as one of the top traditional generic drugs businesses in the world, and a large vaccine developer, Novartis has truly become a much more diversified drugmaker in the past several years.

Even for a drugmaker the size of Novartis, swallowing a company the size of Alcon will be a big deal if it exercises its remaining option for Alcon and then goes on to fully acquire the company. Currently, Novartis is the fourth-largest drugmaker on the U.S. exchanges, with a market capitalization of around $113 billion. While the Alcon deal probably won't vault it past Johnson & Johnson into the top spot as the largest ranked pharmaceutical and health-care company, it should help it eventually pass up GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) and approach Pfizer's size, assuming that the deal is mostly accretive to Novartis.

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Fool contributor Brian Lawler does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has an A+ disclosure policy.