Schering AG of Germany achieved a 30% hike in operating profits to 218 million euros in the fourth quarter of 2005, driven by the fast growth of its oral contraceptive products Yasmin and Mirena.

Sales in the fourth quarter rose 11% overall to 1.41 billion euros ($1.68bn), with Yasmin (drospirenone plus ethinyl estradiol) leaping 35% to 165 million euros, consolidating Schering’s position as the world’s largest maker of contraceptive products and placing Yasmin on track to become the firm’s top product.

The intrauterine contraceptive Mirena also did well, rising 27% in the quarter and bringing in 243 million euros in 2005 as a whole.

For the full-year, Schering reported sales of 5.3 million euros, with operating profit rising 21% to 928 million euros.

Schering’s top-selling product, the multiple sclerosis drug Betaferon/Betaseron (interferon beta-1b) also climbed 12% in the quarter to 240 million euros, an acceleration over prior quarters despite strong competition in the MS segment.

Buys Betaseron rights

The German company also said it is exercising a right to buy the exclusive rights to the product from US partner Chiron, an opportunity that arose because of Novartis’ takeover of the latter firm, but was tight-lipped about how much this would cost. Analysts have suggested that the price tag could be as high as 1 billion euros.

Analysts said the move was intended to increase Schering’s control over the product, which has assumed even greater importance to the firm since it suffered late-stage product disappointments that have thrown a spanner into its future growth plans. These have including a major delay for cancer drug PTK/ZK, partnered with Novartis, as well as the continuing lack of US approval for Yasmin and .

The upcoming patent expiry on Betaferon in 2007-8 – which could expose the product to generic competition providing regulatory obstacles to the approval of copycat versions are overcome – is also a factor.

Meanwhile, Schering also announced a major buyback of its shares. The company plans to bring 500 million euros worth of shares back into its own hands between March and September, the biggest buyback in its history.