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Bristol-Myers, J&J team up against hepatitis C

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bristol-Myers Squibb Co and Johnson & Johnson plan to jointly develop experimental treatments for hepatitis C in a market worth billions of dollars.

The drugs being developed by the two companies work by blocking different proteins than those attacked by traditional treatments for the serious liver disease, which is caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus.

Bristol-Myers said on Friday its drugs daclatasir (BMS-790052) and its NS5A replication complex inhibitor would be tested in combination with a NS3 protease inhibitor called TMC435 being developed by J&J's Tibotec pharmaceuticals unit.

Beginning in the first half of 2012, the medicines will be tested in various combinations in patients with genotype 1, the most common and most difficult-to-treat viral strain of hepatitis C.

J&J currently has the European rights to distribute Incivo (telaprevir), one of the most promising new hepatitis C treatments on the market. The recently approved drug, which can nearly double prior cure rates, was developed and is sold in the United States by Vertex Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Incivek.

Any drug that comes out of the Bristol/J&J collaboration would likely be a rival to the Vertex medicine, which is taken in combination with the older drugs ribavirin and pegylated interferon.

Several companies are racing to develop hepatitis C treatment regimens that do not include interferon, which causes severe flu-like symptoms and leads many patients to discontinue or avoid treatment.

Pharmasset Inc, which is being acquired by Gilead Sciences Inc and Abbott Laboratories, are among the companies developing promising all oral, interferon-free treatments for hepatitis C, a market some analysts have said could be worth $20 billion by 2020.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson and Bill Berkrot; Editing by Derek Caney)

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