By John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – Novartis will pay $150 million to Ionis Pharmaceuticals to license an RNA-targeting cardiovascular drug as the Swiss company aims to bolster its range of heart disease treatments that now includes the blockbuster Entresto.

Novartis will do a Phase 3 trial of TQJ230, also known as AKCEA-APO(a)-LRx, against an inherited form of cardiovascular disease where people have elevated levels of so-called lipoprotein (a) that cannot effectively be cut via diet and lifestyle changes and plays a role in the narrowing of the arteries, heart attacks, thrombosis and stroke.

Novartis’s cardiovascular disease franchise suffered after patent expirations in 2012 on blockbusters such as Diovan opened the field to cheaper rivals.

With its three-year-old heart-failure drug Entresto topping $1 billion in sales in 2018, the company is hoping TQJ230 will eventually help augment a heart-disease portfolio that is growing again.

Novartis chief drug developer John Tsai said if all went well he would have approvals and be able to start selling TQJ230 by around 2024.

“I’ll be pushing the teams aggressively to see if we can’t accelerate that timeline,” Tsai told Reuters.

“The market where we start is going to be in the high-risk patient population, patients who’ve had a previous cardiovascular event,” he said. “Down the road, there would be opportunities to think about whether we would go into the primary prevention population.” The experimental drug from Carlsbad, Calif.-based Ionis and its wholly-owned Akcea Therapeutics subsidiary works by binding to certain messenger RNA in the liver, to interfere with the production of lipoprotein (a).

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About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it remains the leading cause of death for men and women.

Novartis’s Phase 3 trial still must recruit about 8,000-10,000 patients, with its goal to demonstrate the injectible medicine cuts the risk of suffering cardiovascular events, Tsai said.

Novartis and Ionis, which helped to develop Biogen’s spinal muscular atrophy drug Spinraza, initially struck the deal in 2017 to work together on two cardiovascular drugs.

Ionis has said the deal for both medicines could top $1 billion, if both are licensed and successfully commercialized.

They are still awaiting data on a second medicine, called AKCEA-APOCIII-LRx, before Novartis decides how to move ahead with that, Tsai said.

(Reporting by John Miller; editing by Thomas Seythal/Louise Heavens/Jane Merriman)