Pharmaceutical Product Development, the North Carolina contract research organization better known as PPD, is boosting its capabilities to recruit and keep patients for clinical trials with the acquisition of Pennsylvania company Acurian.

Wilmington-based PPD did not disclose any financial terms of the Acurian acquisition, which was announced Tuesday. But the deal shows that the privately held firm wants to improve the way it finds patients for the studies testing the safety and efficacy of experimental medicines.

Recruiting patients for clinical trials and keeping them in trials once they’re underway has long been a hurdle for CROs and pharmas that want move these trials along faster and keep their costs down. Acurian’s proprietary software manages the entire patient recruitment cycle from patient recruitment to enrollment and then retention. Acurian can identify, contact, prescreen and refer people who live in a community but are not known to the clinical research site. This avoids the need for finding additional research sites or making other changes that can add to the length and expense of a clinical trial.

The Acurian acquisition is the latest in a wave of merger and acquisition activity throughout the CRO sector. Durham-based Quintiles (NYSE:Q) earlier this month acquired Novella Clinical, a Morrisville CRO that specializes in conducting clinical trials for cancer drugs and medical devices.

While the M&A activity shows mid-sized CROs coming together to get the size and scale to compete against the largest CROs for the most lucrative deals with pharma companies, large CROs are taking a different approach in their acquisition strategy. The largest CROs, such as Quintiles, Covance (NYSE:CVD) and PPD, are turning to more strategic deals to fill in specific needs. Quintiles’ Novella acquisition not only gave the company additional expertise in oncology and medical devices, it also gave Quintiles connections to small and mid-sized pharma companies – a part of the market where Quintiles had not been well represented. In the case of the Acurian deal, PPD sees the acquisition as a way to improve patient recruitment and retention.

Acurian uses predictive software analytics to customize the process of recruiting patients for clinical trials. From its headquarters in Horsham, Pa., Acurian provides its clinical trial services to large and mid-sized pharma companies worldwide.

“Acurian’s best-in-class approach to patient recruitment will be an excellent complement to PPD’s clinical development expertise, David Simmons, PPD’s chairman and CEO said in a statement. “ Acurian will enable PPD to provide clients industry-leading services that accelerate patient enrollment and support their strategies for data-driven feasibility, site selection and enrollment delivery.”

Acurian will operate under its own name as a separate business unit under PPD. Rick Malcolm, Acurian’s CEO since 2005, will continue to oversee Acurian along with the rest of his management team.

Investors in privately-held Acurian include Euclid SR Partners, ProQuest Investments, JP Morgan Partners, Flatiron Partners, CDP Capital Technology Ventures, and Merck Capital Ventures. According to securities filings, Acurian’s most recent financing was a $7 million series C round in 2003.