Swiss drug major Roche announced this morning that Severin Schwan is to take over from Franz Humer as chief executive of the firm in March next year, as it posted a strong performance for the first half of 2007 with sales growth of 15%.

Severin Schwan, current CEO of Roche Diagnostics, will step into the shoes of Humer as head of Roche after the latter moves to concentrate on his role of chairman of Roche Holdings.

Explaining the decision, Humer said: “In view of the increasing complexity of the tasks involved, the Board has decided to separate the Chairman and CEO roles…As Chairman I will continue to work with the Board and Executive Committee to continue building Roche into a leading global healthcare corporation.”

The news came as the group recorded another set of solid results for the first six months of the year. Group sales jumped 15% to 23 billion Swiss francs ($4.9 billion), helping to push a 29% leap in net income to CHF 5.9 billion, beating a Reuters poll forecast of Net CHF 5.39 billion francs.

Growth was led by a strong performance by the pharmaceuticals unit, which turned in an 18% rise in sales (in local currencies) to CHF 18.2 billion, almost three time the market growth rate, the company pointed out.

Oncology leads the way

The division’s oncology portfolio led the pack, with sales rocketing 22%, driven by new indications for a number of drugs including Avastin (bevacizumab), Herceptin (trastuzumab) and Xeloda (capecitabine). But the firm said its other key products also fared well, as did Genentech’s blindness drug Lucentis (ranibuzumab) and the antiviral Tamiflu (oseltamivir), which is being stockpiled for pandemic preparedness plans, all helping to drive the division’s operating profit growth up 31% to $6.6 billion.

The diagnostics unit recorded sales of CHF 4.6 billion, marking a rise of 5% over the year ago period, with all regions except Japan contributing to growth. Double-digit sales increases were achieved by the division’s Professional Diagnostics (+6%), Diabetes Care (+6%) and Applied Science (+9%) businesses, although Roche Molecular Diagnostics was hit again by a decline in its industrial reagents unit, and so slipped 2%. Operating profit climbed 3% to CHF 949 million.

Commenting on the group’s performance, Humer said: “Roche posted impressive half year results, continuing the robust growth of previous years...On top of this substantial organic sales increase we achieved another significant improvement in the group’s profitability…At the same time, we have positioned ourselves even more strongly for future growth through good progress in our R&D projects and a number of strategic acquisitions.”

Looking forward, the company reaffirmed its raised guidance announced in April, which targets double-digit sales growth (in local currencies) for the Group and the Pharmaceuticals Division.