The Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has agreed to acquire Inhibitex Inc. for about $2.5 billion to gain access to its promising hepatitis C treatment, the companies said on Saturday.

At $26 per share, the deal is a huge 163 percent premium to Inhibitex's closing price of $9.87 on Friday.

Recent years have seen significant advances for treating hepatitis C -- a serious liver disease that afflicts an estimated 180 million people worldwide -- while setting off a scramble among large drugmakers to secure the most promising products.

The Bristol-Inhibitex deal comes on the heels of Gilead Sciences Inc.'s $11 billion acquisition in November of Pharmasset Inc., which has its own promsing hepatitis C therapies. That deal was at an 89 percent premium.

Inhibitex's lead asset is INX-189, an oral drug in Phase II or midstage development. Bristol envisions combining INX-189 with products in its own pipeline to create an all-oral regimen that would eliminate the need for interferons, which often cause flulike side effects that lead many hepatitis C patients to stop or delay treatment.

Bristol expects the transaction to hurt earnings through 2016. That includes an expected hit to earnings per share of about 4 cents in 2012 and 5 cents in 2013.

Analysts on average expect Bristol to earn $2.01 per share in both 2012 and 2013, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by John O'Callaghan)