US health care giant Johnson & Johnson turned in a robust set of first-quarter results yesterday, crowned by a 17% rise in net earnings to $2.9 billion dollars, ahead of analyst estimates. The company said all three if its divisions – pharmaceuticals, medical devices and consumer products – contributed to the result.

Group sales also grew healthily, up 11% to $12.83 billion versus last year [[14/04/04c]], beating analyst consensus estimates of $12.51 billion. Earnings per share came in five cents above forecasts at $0.97.

J&J said its global pharmaceutical revenues rose 7% to $5.8 billion for the quarter, driven by strong sales of the rheumatoid arthritis drug Remicade (infliximab), the epilepsy and migraine drug Topamax (topiramate) and the Risperdal (risperidone) franchise for schizophrenia. However, anaemia drug Procrit (epoetin alfa) saw sales fall in the face of increased competition, said the firm.

Consumer revenues rose 11% to $2.3 billion, but the medical devices arm put in the strongest sales performance, with turnover rising 16% to $4.8 billion on strong sales of the Cypher (sirolimus) drug-eluting cardiovascular stent.

Domestic turnover grew 4.9% from a year ago to $7.26 billion, but international sales leaped 20% to $5.57 billion, with European turnover up 17% to $3.18 billion and Asia/Pacific/Africa increasing 25% to $1.67 billion.

The results came at the same time as J&J announced plans to acquire privately held antibiotic maker Peninsula Pharmaceuticals for around $245 million in cash. Peninsula is focusing on developing and commercializing antibiotics to treat life-threatening infections, and has a lead product, doripenem, in late-stage testing.

Doripenem, is a broad-spectrum antibiotic and a new member of the carbapenem class of drugs. The company is currently evaluating the drug, which has received US Food and Drug Administration fast-track designation, in six Phase III clinical trials. Prior to completing the deal, Peninsula will spin out PPI-0903, a fifth-generation cephalosporin, into a newly-formed company, Cerexa, which will not be owned by J&J.

- Meanwhile, there was bad news for J&J yesterday when a meta-analysis of three clinical studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 20), suggested that its heart failure drug, Natrecor (nesiritide), was linked to a higher rate of death than standard therapy. The analysis, conducted on data in the first 30 days after the start of treatment, found a 7% death rate with Natrecor and 4% with the control group.

The authors of the study concluded: “The possibility of an increased risk of death should be investigated in a large-scale, adequately powered, controlled trial before routine use of nesiritide for acutely decompensated heart failure.”