Ascenta Therapeutics Inc. has signed what looks like a Monopoly-money deal with French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis.

The small Malvern biotechnology firm that's been working on new cancer treatments signed a collaboration and licensing deals for two compounds in a deal valued at up to $398 million.

While the transaction includes an upfront payment, the statement announcing the deal did not disclose the amount.

The compounds, which Ascenta had previously licensed from the University of Michigan, are being tested for their ability to restore tumor cell apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

Ascenta is a venture-backed company whose investors include Princeton's Domain Associates, Enterprise Partners, Pac-LinkPerseus LLC, Scale Venture Partners, Sofinnova Ventures and US Venture Partners. It has raised $82 million since August 2004 when CEO Mel Sorensen joined the company.

"While money is the energy of the business, the engines are the creative minds," said Sorensen in a phone interview. "It's a business where one needs to have a strong spirit to get to the end."

That end is getting a new medicine approved and in the hands of doctors to treat cancer patients.

Ascenta got its start in San Diego in 2003. The operations moved to Malvern in late 2007. "This is clearly one of the best places to start up new companies," he said.

Sorensen described Ascenta as a virtual organization that uses full-time and part-time employees and consultants to further its pipeline. He declined to specify how many people work for the company or the amount of the upfront payment.

Sorensen is a former executive with GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. in the Philadelphia area. Sanofi-Aventis CEO Chris Viehbacher is also a former Glaxo executive who'd been based at its Research Triangle Park operations. Viehbacher left Glaxo at the end of 2008 after Andrew Witty was chosen to succeed Jean-Pierre Garnier as Glaxo's CEO.

Sanofi-Aventis has U.S. headquarters in Bridgewater, N.J. One of its research and development sites is in Malvern where it employs more than 700 people. It also operates an enormous vaccine research complex in Swiftwater in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Ascenta transaction is the second licensing agreement for Sanofi-Aventis in about a month. On May 3, Sanofi-Aventis signed a deal wtih Glenmark Pharmaceuticals S.A. covering new treatments for chronic pain worth up to $325 million.