Belgian chemicals and pharmaceuticals group Solvay posted a strong set of first quarter results, with the pharmaceuticals division showing particularly impressive growth on the back of the company’s acquisition of French drugmaker Fournier.

Overall, sales at the group rose 20% to 2.4 billion euros ($3bn), with earnings before interest and taxes on continuing operations (REBIT) up 34% to 218 million euros.

The pharmaceutical division did even better, with sales up 56% and REBIT surging 195% to 672 million euros. This increase was driven by the incorporation of Fournier’s product portfolio, which included 114 million euros in sales of fenofibrate-based cholesterol-lowering products, as well as a $298 million, five-year contract for cell-based influenza vaccines from the US government.

The pharma business also managed to trim back costs by 75 million euros in the wake of the acquisition.

Among the best-performing products at Solvay Pharmaceuticals were testosterone-replacement therapy Androgel, up 45% to 68 million euros, and gastrointestinal drug Pantoloc (pantoprazole), up 45% to 45 million euros, although the latter has now started to lose patent protection.

The group said it was confident it would meet the objectives set for the pharma division under the INSPIRE project, which aims for 7% annual sales growth and a 20% operating margin by 2010.

"Overall for 2006, the Solvay group should record higher sales and operating results, taking into account the current macroeconomic conditions." said Solvay's chief executive Alois Michielsen at the firm’s annual general meeting.

Solvay's chemicals division posted a sales increase of 13% to 752 million euros, while plastics grew of 8% to 933 million euros.

Turning to the pharma pipeline, Solvay said it was on track to file for approval of schizophrenia drug bifeprunox in the next several months, while the fenofibrate franchise would also be extended with a number of combination products. Leading these is Dualtis (fenofibrate and metformin), which will be targetted at diabetics and could be submitted to regulators later this year.