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Enanta Pharmaceuticals Inc., a privately held drug research company in Watertown, said it is joining forces with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG to speed development of a drug that targets the hepatitis C virus.

Novartis will pay $34 million to license EDP-239, a compound identified by Enanta that is believed to halt reproduction of the hepatitis C virus. Novartis, which operates a major research center in Cambridge, will fund research aimed at turning EDP-239 into an effective medication and bringing it to market.

Under the development agreement, Enanta could receive payments of up to $406 million if the drug meets a series of medical and regulatory benchmarks. The Watertown firm would also receive royalties on the sale of the drug, if it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, a process that typically takes several years. Novartis will also fund Enanta’s research into other compounds that may be effective against hepatitis C, Enanta officials said.

At least 170 million people worldwide have hepatitis C, including more than 3 million Americans. The disease is usually spread through infected blood during transfusions or drug abuse. It attacks the liver and causes permanent, often fatal damage. “It’s a huge global problem,’’ said Jay Luly, Enanta’s chief executive.

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It’s also a huge business opportunity for drug makers. Last year, Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge won US government approval for Incivek, a hepatitis treatment that generated $456.8 million in sales in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Rival drug maker Merck & Co. brought out a hepatitis drug last year as well.

In November, California drug company Gilead Sciences Inc. agreed to pay $10.8 billion for Pharmasset Inc., a New Jersey firm working on a hepatitis cure, though shares of Gilead slumped last week when the Pharmasset drug delivered disappointing results in clinical tests.

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In January, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. agreed to pay $2.5 billion for Inhibitex Inc., another company working on a hepatitis drug.

Luly said the latest hepatitis treatments can cure the disease in about 70 percent of patients. Enanta and Novartis hope to equal or exceed the performance of existing hepatitis C drugs, while eliminating the need for interferon, an additional drug that current treatments require to be effective.

Interferon can have unpleasant side effects, such as nausea and vomiting. “Imagine a very bad case of the flu and having it every day for almost a year, ’’ said Luly.

In addition, he said, interferon must be injected, rather than taken as a pill.

“We’re in the hunt behind Vertex,’’ said Luly, “with a drug that’s safer, easier to use, and more efficacious, we believe.’’

Novartis officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.