Solvay has posted flat sales for the first quarter but its pharmaceuticals division is making good progress helped by the strong performance of its fenofibrate cardiovascular drugs.

Total sales for the Belgian group, which also specialises in chemicals and plastics, were 2.37 billion euros while net income inched up 1% to 220 million euros. Operating profits were down 8% to 300 million.

Pharmaceutical revenues were up 4% to 653 million euros, despite the negative impact of the weak US dollar, while operating profit at the unit rose 9% to 136 million euros. Solvay’s fenofibrate drugs such as TriCor (sold by Abbott) brought in 122 million euros, a rise of 20%. The firm’s Creon pancreatic enzyme replacement product had sales of 53 million euros (+6%), while the firm’s Androgel testosterone replacement therapy rose 5% to 78 million euros. Sales of the synthetic cannabinoid Marinol (dronabinol), for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and appetite loss in AIDS patients, fell 20% to 24 million euros.

Solvay said the implementation of its pharmaceuticals savings plan is continuing as planned, having set itself a goal of 300 million euros in annual cost savings by 2010. In terms of future sales, the firm has high hopes for Simcor, which was recently approved in the USA and combines Abbott’s Niaspan (extended-release niacin) and simvastatin, the active ingredient in Merck & Co’s Zocor which came off-patent last year. Solvay has certain co-marketing rights on the new cholesterol combo.

As for the experimental antipsychotic bifeprunox, Wyeth recently pulled out of an alliance to develop the drug after the firms received a non-approvable letter from the US Food and Drug Administration in August last year. However Solvay is sticking by the drug.

Speaking at the company’s annual general meeting, Solvay chairman Christian Jourquin said that the delay caused by the FDA letter “does not call into question either the value of this new compound, which offers major therapeutic benefits for patients, or the quality of the contributions of our R&D teams”. He added that the future for bifeprunox will now be decided by Solvay and its remaining partner, Denmark’s Lundbeck.

However investors were not overly pleased by the results, not least when Solvay said that although full-year earnings from its pharma unit should top last year’s total, its other divisions are not performing so well. This, coupled with the effects of a weak dollar means that the group “is unlikely to reach the record results of 2007”. Solvay shares ended the day down 3.3% to 90.50 euros.