Germany’s Merck KGaA says that first-quarter operating profit leapt 49.3% to 359.6 million euros, boosted by strong sales of the cancer drug Erbitux and the multiple sclerosis treatment Rebif.

Group turnover climbed 8.3% to 1.86 billion euros and the Darmstadt-based group’s Merck Serono unit contributed 1.18 billion euros, an increase of 9.7%. Sales of Rebif (interferon beta-1a) rose 11% to 313 million, boosted by a 26% increase in revenues from the USA.

However the most eye-catching performance came from Erbitux (cetuximab), which jumped 33% to 145 million euros, helped by strong growth in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, China and
Brazil. Excitement is growing around the drug, which is currently indicated for colon and head-and-neck cancer, as analysts are expecting Merck Serono to post positive survival data about Erbitux as a treatment for lung cancer at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago on June 1.

Yesterday, Morgan Stanley issued a research note saying that “we have learnt from a reliable public source that Erbitux in the BMS-099 trial in first line metastatic lung cancer has unexpectedly shown a survival benefit”. Neither Merck nor the drug’s inventor ImClone Systems could confirm that data but the broker noted that “an additional 400 million euros in revenue for Erbitux in 2012 would translate into a 15% increase in our Merck KGaA EPS estimate”.

As for Merck’s other products, the beta blocker Cardicor/Concor (bisoprolol) was up 6.2% to 100 million euros, while its Glucophage (metformin) diabetes products increased 10.0% to 72 million euros. The fertility treatment Gonal F (follitropin) sneaked up 1.3% to 114 million euros, while the thyroid treatment Euthyrox (levothyroxine) contributed 35 million euros, up 4.6%. Sales of Raptiva (efalizumab), for the treatment of moderate-to-severe psoriasis, rose 23% to 22 million euros.