Development deal worth up to $1.1bn includes three investigational drugs aiming to extend treatment options in fast-moving market

Specialist pharmaceutical firm Achillion is partnering with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals to develop new hepatitis C drugs. The goal is to add to the latest crop of blockbuster hepatitis C drugs with medicines that require shorter treatment courses, and can treat more genetic variants of the virus.

Janssen will invest $225 million (£147 million) in Achillion shares, and has promised performance milestone payments worth up to $1.1 billion, plus royalties on any sales, for successful development of Achillion’s lead compounds. In return Janssen gets a worldwide exclusive licence to develop drug products containing the molecules, either singly or in combination.

The move is part of renewed interest in hepatitis C drugs, partly driven by high prices. Gilead’s Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) revolutionised treatment of the disease by reducing the need for combination therapies including interferon and ribavirin, which have serious side effects. Abbvie is aiming to compete with its four-drug combination Viekira-Pak (ombitasvir, paritaprevir, ritonavir, dasabuvir), and J&J has won approval for its own drug, Olysio (simeprevir) to be used in combination with Sovaldi for some patient populations.