Novartis says that earnings for the first quarter have been impacted by the strong Swiss franc and expenses related to its $51 billion merger with eye specialist Alcon, but sales leapt 16% thanks to the performance of its new drugs.

Net profit fell 4% to $2.82 billion, or $1.41 per share   (-6%), but sales reached $14.03 billion, with pharmaceutical turnover up 7% to $7.77 billion. Novartis' biggest-seller was once again the blood pressure lowerer Diovan (valsartan), though sales were down 3% to $1.48 billion, due to generic competition in  Spain, Canada and Brazil, plus price pressure.

Turnover from Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib), for chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours, was up 4% to $1.08 billion, The successor to Glivec, Tasigna (nilotinib), also approved for CML, doubled to $153 million.

Femara (letrozole), for women with hormone-sensitive breast cancer, increased 3% to $354 million, though Novartis expects increased generic competition as soon as the second quarter. Zometa (zoledronic acid) for cancer complications slipped 1% to $373 million, while turnover of the acromegaly therapy Sandostatin (ocreotide) rose 9% to $337 million.

As for Novartis’ newer products, the cardiovascular drug Exforge (amlodipine plus valsartan) brought in $261 million, up 27%, while Exjade (deferasirox), the first once-daily oral therapy for treating patients with iron overload, was flat at  $179 million. The antihypertensive Tekturna/Rasilez (aliskiren) leapt 47% to $131million.

Other highlights were the sales of Lucentis (ranibizumab) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration  which shot up 22% to $444 million, while kidney cancer drug Afinitor (everolimus) brought in $90 million, up 120%. Turnover from Galvus (vildagliptin) for type 2 diabetes soared 74% to $132 million, while Novartis’ new oral multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya got off to a good start, bringing in $59 million.

As for the Swiss major’s other divisions, its  vaccines and diagnostics unit saw revenues sink 73%% to $371 million, as the like, year-earlier period included $1.1 billion of A(H1N1) pandemic flu vaccine sales. Its Sandoz generics division saw sales increase 16% to $2.32 billion, while consumer health turnover climbed 11% to $1.64 billion.

Chief executive Joe Jimenez said "contributions from all businesses led to a good start in 2011”, and he gave special mention to Gilenya and Lucentis.  He added that “promising results of numerous clinical trials, including a Phase III study involving JAK inhibitor INC424, again showed the success of our novel approach to R&D”.

Investors seemed impressed with the results and this morning at 9.30 (UK time), the stock was up 2.8% at 49.93 francs.