Merck ( MRK) on Tuesday signed its third licensing agreement in less than two weeks, this time with a French company to develop new blood pressure medications. The deal with NicOx follows agreements on Monday with Pennsylvania's Neuromed Pharmaceuticals for an experimental pain reliever and on March 9 with Boston's Paratek Pharmaceuticals for a potential antibiotic. As if to prove to Wall Street that they aren't kidding about eschewing megamergers, Big Pharma companies have been making a batch of licensing deals in recent months. In December, for example, AstraZeneca ( AZN) announced four licensing transactions with small companies to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease, hardening of the arteries, sepsis and cancer. Other drug giants haven't matched Merck or AstraZeneca in announcing clusters of agreements, but recent dealmakers include GlaxoSmithKline ( GSK), Pfizer ( PFE), Schering-Plough ( SGP) and Eli Lilly ( LLY). Merck said it would pay NicOx $11.2 million upfront and as much as $340.2 million in future milestone payments, depending on the progress of work on blood pressure medications. NicOx also would receive royalties based on sales. NicOx specializes in drugs that increase the amount of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide plays a role in maintaining the health of the body's cardiovascular, central nervous and immune systems. The latest agreement follows a previous research collaboration between Merck and NicOx to assess how nitric-oxide donating compounds could lower blood pressure. The companies say experiments show that natural nitric oxide, released from the lining of blood vessels, helps control blood pressure. NicOx also is using its technology to help Pfizer develop a treatment for glaucoma and other eye diseases. A little further along in the research pipeline is NMED-160, a pain treatment being developed by another of Merck's newest friends, Neuromed Pharmaceuticals, of Conshohocken, Pa. The pain drug is in the second of three stages of clinical trials along the path toward regulatory review.