Investors were keeping an eye on Germany’s Altana Pharma yesterday after the Wall Street Journal said the company is in talks to divest its drugs unit for some $7 billion dollars. The news has neither been denied nor confirmed by the firm, but the power of suggestion is such that its stock saw heavy trading yesterday, with more than 10 times the normal volume changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, although the share price remained relatively flat at $55.13.

However, there was little indication of such a move at Altana’s recent R&D presentation – held on October 12 – where it highlighted not only its respiratory products, Alvesco (ciclesonide) and Daxas (roflumilast), but also discussed upcoming projects in gastroenterology and cancer – and said it expects to be able to lead its own oncology projects into clinical Phase I in the next two years.

But Altana has trod a tough path of late after Pfizer pulled out of its deal for Daxas [[04/07/05a]] – triggering analysts to issue sell recommendations amid suggestions of a weak pipeline. Alvesco too has had its problems: approved in more than 30 countries around the world, it has thus far failed to crack the USA, having received an approvable letter towards the end of last year after a study threw up a small number of patients who developed lens opacity [[27/10/04a]].

Altana has since tried to bolster its pharmaceuticals business with the acquisition of dermatology products from GlaxoSmithKline [[03/10/05c]], and the purchase of chemicals company Eckart [[04/08/05c]]. Whilst this may suggest an increased focus on this sector of its business, Altana has also said it plans to spin off its chemicals unit during the course of next year and plough an additional 1 billion dollars into pharmaceuticals for new product development, alliances and acquisitions.

And it was this it reiterated yesterday as rumours circulated that it has not ruled out the sale of its pharmaceutical operations or the possibility of forging a joint venture company. “Altana is currently considering all options for the pharmaceutical unit and therefore a complete sale cannot be ruled out,” the sources told the WSJ. A final decision is not believed to have yet been made.