European stocks extended gains Thursday as investors continued to ride the global market equity rally amid a string of solid corporate earnings and renewed takeover activity.

Switzerland's SMI led the early session gains with a 1.1% advance, with the normally defensive benchmark boosted by a 20.5% gain for Actelion Pharmaceuticals (ALIOY)  after the Swiss biotech agreed to a $30 billion tie up with Johnson & Johnson(JNJ) - Get Report  that will spin out the company's research and development unit into a separate business.

Actelion shares were changing hands at Sfr225.90 each in Zurich pegging the company's market value at Sfr29.6 billion ($29.6 billion). The shares have rise 32% since it confirmed exclusive talks with J&J on Dec. 21 but are more than 70% higher since takeover speculation first surfaced in late November.

The region wide Stoxx Europe 600 index, the broadest measure of share price performance, was trading 0.54% higher by 08:45 GMT with Germany's DAX gaining 0.37% and the CAC-40 in France rising 0.15%.

Britain's FTSE 100, however, is lagging its European peers, held down by a stronger pound -- which is trading at a six-week high of 1.2654 against the U.S. dollar -- and a significant decline in Unilever plc UL after the consumer products giant posted weaker-than-expected half-year earnings and cautioned on tough times ahead. 

Unilever stock fell 4.3% to 3,201 pence in the first hour of trading in London, down 0.13% on the session and extending their three-month decline to 7.4%.

Overnight in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 booked its second consecutive session gain with a 1.8% rise, to 19,402.39 points, built on solid earnings and, much like recent advances for stocks in London, without the help of a weaker yen, which was little-changed at 113.67 against the U.S. dollar.

The region-wide MSCI Asia ex-Japan Index was marked 0.7% higher at 06:45 GMT, supported by a 0.8% for South Korea's KOSPI Composite Index. Markets in Australia were closed for that country's national holiday, kicking off a string of observances around the region will which see major markets in Hong Kong and Shanghai closed or trading in reduced hours for much of the next week owing to New Year celebrations.

Much of the day's equity market momentum, of course, began with the groundswell breach of the 20,000 barrier for the Dow Jones Industrial Average Wednesday and the benchmarks' record close of 20,068 points after its second consecutive day of triple-digit gains, a streak not seen since the two-day rally following the presidential election in November.

The S&P 500 was up 0.80%, and the Nasdaq climbed 0.99%, also setting new records. The S&P 500 closed at 2,298 and the Nasdaq finished at 5.656.

U.S. futures prices suggest investors are ready to add more to the gains, with the Dow called 52 points higher at the open, the S&P 500 expected to rise 2.7 points and the Nasdaq rising 17 points.