Irish drugmaker Elan said today it had slashed its losses to just over $20 million in the first quarter, saying that the expected relaunch of its multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri will help it return to profitability.

A year ago the company posted a loss of $116 million. First-quarter sales rose 31% to $134 million, helped by a good showing from the antibiotics Maxipime (cefepime HCl), up 25% to $44.7 million, and Azactam (aztreonam), sales of which doubled in the quarter to $19.9 million.

Elan noted that Azactam maintained its sales trajectory despite losing patent protection last October, as no generic rivals have yet been approved for sale. Sales of painkiller Prialt (ziconotide) also doubled, but remain at a low level, reaching $2.6 million in the quarter. Elan sold European rights to the product to Eisai in February, but retains rights in the USA.

Manufacturing and royalty revenues rose 18% to $52.6 million in the quarter

All eyes on Tysabri

But the real interest in Elan centers on Tysabri (natalizumab), which was suspended from sale early last year after it was linked to a rare brain disease called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy.

Chief financial officer Shane Cooke said in a statement: "We remain committed to making Tysabri available for patients in the US and Europe and are confident that, with the financial leverage we've created over the year, revenues from Tysabri will accelerate our return to profitability."

The US Food and Drug Administration is due to deliver a final decision on allowing Tysabri back to the market by June 28 while, earlier this week, European Commission advisors also gave their blessing to its return.

Estimates of Tysabri’s sales potential should it return to market vary, though some analysts believe the drug, while likely not achieving its once-predicted $2 to $3 billion in peak sales, could still break the $1 billion barrier. Elan will share profits from the drug with partner Biogen Idec.