Roche has posted a reasonable set of results for the first half, with the firm reaping the benefits of its restructuring programme at a time when it is suffering negative effects from the strong Swiss franc and slower growth from the cancer blockbuster Avastin.

Net income fell 5% to 5.26 billion francs, while group sales were down 12% (but flat in local currencies) to 21.67 billion francs. Pharmaceutical turnover was down 13% to 16.82 billion francs.

In its oncology segment, sales of Avastin (bevacizumab) declined 8% to  2.73 billion francs, and fell 15% in the USA where the Food and Drug Administration has recently confirmed its intention to pull Avastin's breast cancer indication. Roche's biggest seller is MabThera/Rituxan (rituximab), for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia as well as rheumatoid arthritis, which contributed 3.06 billion francs, an increase of 6%.

Sales of Herceptin (trastuzumab) for HER2-positive breast cancer rose 10% to 2.72 billion francs, while the chemotherapy Xeloda (capecitabine) grew 4% to 668 million francs. Tarceva (erlotinib), for advanced lung and pancreatic cancer, increased 4% to 614 million francs.

Pegasys (peginterferon alfa-2a), for hepatitis B and C, fell 11% to 695 million francs. The company said patients are delaying the start of therapy in anticipation of combination therapies with Pegasys "and new antivirals that became available in the USA in late May and are expected soon in Europe", ie  Merck & Co's Victrelis (boceprevir), which Roche will co-promote, and Vertex Pharmaceutical's Incivek (telaprevir).

Among Roche’s other products, US turnover of Lucentis (ranibizumab) for wet age-related macular degeneration jumped 32% to 769 million francs. RoActemra/Actemra (tocilizumab), for rheumatoid arthritis, rocketed 99% to 277 million francs, while sales of the renal anaemia treatment Mircera (methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta) rose 25% to 138 million francs.

More established drugs fared less well. The transplantation product CellCept (mycophenolate mofetil) fell 14% to 538 million francs, while combined sales of Roche’s NeoRecormon and its Chugai unit’s Epogin (epoetin beta), for anaemia, declined 20% to 493 million francs. The osteoporosis drug Boniva/Bonviva (ibandronic acid) was down 17% to 394 million francs.

Pipeline producing the goods

Roche chief executive Severin Schwan (pictured) said the firm has continuously improved its business performance and profitability over the last three years "in spite of the economic and financial crisis during this period". He added that "this has allowed us to both increase operating cash flows and to continue to invest in our strong product pipeline".

Mr Schwan said that "we achieved seven positive results out of seven late-stage trials in the first half of this year", noting that Roche also recently filed its new melanoma drug vemurafenib, to be known as Zelboraf, and a BRAF companion diagnostic test.

He went on to say that the company has further improved profitability, "mainly due to the ongoing implementation of our Operational Excellence programme." The latter generated savings of 950 million francs in the first half.