Novartis has made a strong start to 2007 with first-quarter sales and earnings growth being driven once again by its cardiovascular and oncology drugs.

The Swiss firm has posted an 18% rise in net sales to $9.82 billion, while net income was up 11% to $ 2.17 billion. Pharmaceutical revenues climbed 17% to $5.92 billion, with sales of the antihypertensives Diovan (valsartan) and Lotrel (benazepril and amlodipine) sales reaching $1.15 billion (+20%) and $353 million (+206% in the USA only), respectively, while Gleevec (imatinib) for certain forms of chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours increased 16% to $674 million.

Other products that impressed included Femara (letrozole) for breast cancer, which rose 32% to $208 million and the epilepsy drug, Trileptal (oxcarbazepine), which brought in $197 million, up 17%. Exjade (deferasirox), the first once-daily oral iron chelator for chronic iron overload, contributed $65 million to Novartis' coffers. On the negative side, revenue from the irritable bowel syndrome treatment Zelnorm/Zelmac (tegaserod), sales of which have just been suspended in the USA and seven other countries after a request from the Food and Drug Administration following concerns of cardiovascular risk, fell 3% to $105 million. The suspension will reduce sales by more than $600 million for the rest of 2007.

However this did not dampen the spirits of chief executive Daniel Vasella who said Novartis had made a strong start to 2007, “enhanced by several new approvals for innovative medicines”, such as the high blood pressure medicine Tekturna (aliskiren) in the USA and Exforge (amlodipine plus valsartan) in Europe. He noted that the sale of the Gerber baby food business to fellow Swiss firm Nestle for $5.5 billion means “we have now completed the divestments of non-core businesses as part of our long-term strategy to focus on healthcare, and we will continue to invest vigorously into R&D.” He concluded by saying that Novartis is “confident of another year of record sales and earnings in 2007.”

The company noted that sales growth would nevertheless slow in the rest of the year, as the patent expiries on Trileptal and the antifungal Lamisil (terbinafine) take effect and Denise Anderson at Kepler noted that the first quarter “is expected to be far and away the best of the year...given the outlook for the rest of the year as well as lack of key pipeline news.”

Rufinamide deal signed with Synosia

Meantime, Synosia Therapeutics has signed an exclusive, worldwide licensing agreement (outside of Japan) with Novartis to develop and commercialise the latter’s rufinamide for the treatment of anxiety disorders and bipolar mood disorders. In addition, the deal, for which financial details were not disclosed, includes an exclusive option for the US firm to acquire rights to an undisclosed compound in the central nervous system field.

Novartis granted certain licensing rights to the drug to Eisai of Japan in 2004 and in January this year, the latter received marketing authorisation in the European Union for Inovelon (rufinamide) as adjunctive therapy in Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome a severe form of epilepsy that develops in early childhood.

Synosia chief executive Ian Massey said that "rufinamide is a structurally novel compound with proven efficacy in epilepsy and an extensive safety database,” adding that “it is rare for a start-up company to be offered this kind of opportunity and we look forward to exploring how best to expand its therapeutic potential in CNS through innovative, smart clinical trials.”