GlaxoSmithKline has bought global rights to an experimental drug from Johnson & Johnson for up to 175 million pounds ($230 million), raising its bet on a new generation of biotech medicines for severe asthma.

The British drugmaker recently launched Nucala, its first injectable biological asthma drug, and is looking for additional treatments to help more patients who are still struggling with breathing problems.

Up to 20 percent of asthma patients suffer from severe disease that is not well controlled with traditional inhalers. Nucala helps around a fifth of them, leaving considerable unmet need and a potentially large market, since severe asthma accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all asthma costs.

The new medicine, CNTO 7160, which is in Phase I clinical development at J&J's Janssen unit, targets a protein called interleukin-33, or IL-33, known to play a role in inflammation.

Because it acts upstream in the biological cascade responsible for asthma, hitting IL-33 may have advantages over competing approaches that block only a subset of inflammatory triggers. However, its broad action could also cause more side effects.

GSK plans to investigate the drug's potential in Phase II studies starting next year. The medicine is unlikely to reach the market before around 2023, according to Dave Allen, GSK's head of respiratory R&D.

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EXPERIMENTAL PRODUCT

GSK is not alone in chasing IL-33 as a new drug target. Roche's Genentech unit in January acquired rights to a similar experimental product from Amgen, for an undisclosed sum, and AnaptysBio is also working on a rival treatment.

Allen said all three antibody-based therapies were at a similar stage of development.

GSK intends to use CNTO 7160 to help patients who don't respond to Nucala and whose disease appears to be driven by inflammatory cells called neutrophils.

"This patient population has notably poor outcomes. They have a lot of exacerbations, very poor lung function, and they really do need something," Allen told Reuters.

IL-33 has also been implicated in other diseases, including atopic dermatitis and allergies to peanuts and other foods, but Allen said GSK would focus first on asthma.

Respiratory medicine is GSK's most important pharmaceutical business. It has dominated the sector for more than 40 years but faces increasing competition from rivals.

Under the terms of the deal, Janssen gets an upfront payment plus development and first commercial sales milestone payments that could amount to 175 million pounds. Janssen will also be entitled to tiered royalties and further payments depending on the drug's sales.