Rising demand in the USA for its major products helped AstraZeneca to report a 30% hike in second-quarter operating profit yesterday, ahead of expectations, on sales up 10% to $6.63 billion, helped by brisk growth for its leading products.Second-quarter earnings per share were up 41% to $1.02, and AstraZeneca said it now expected full-year EPS to be in the upper half of its previous forecast range of $3.60-$3.90. The combined sales of AstraZeneca’s five key growth products – gastrointestinal drug Nexium (esomeprazole), Seroquel (quetiapine) for schizophrenia, cholesterol-lowerer Crestor (rosuvastatin), Arimidex (anastrozole for breast cancer and combination asthma product Symbicort (budesonide and formoterol) - grew 21% in the second quarter to $3.3 billion.But shares in the company fell back over 3% on the day, weighed down by concerns over the threat of generic competition to Toprol XL (metoprolol), the delay in launching Symbicort in the USA until the middle of next year, despite its approval there earlier this week, and pricing pressure on Nexium.Quarterly sales of Nexium grew 8% to $1.28 billion, while Crestor climbed 51% to $480 million, shrugging off the impact of the US launch of generic versions of Merck & Co’s rival drug Zocor (simvastatin) in the quarter. Symbicort advanced 25% to $308 million. AstraZeneca said the delay in launching Symbicort in the USA was a result of it wanting to tweak the formulation of the product to improve its shelf-life. Once launched there, Symbicort will go head-to-head in the market with rival product Advair (salmeterol and fluticasone) from GlaxoSmithKline, which made $1.63 billion sales in the USA alone in the first six months of this year.Arimidex gained 31% to $379 million on the back of expanded labelling to include use in early breast cancer, while Seroquel was up 28% to $849 million. Although it is getting long in the tooth and could start to lose patent protection in some markets as early as last year, AstraZeneca has filed for approval of an extended-release formulation in the USA to improve dosing and defend the franchise. This will be filed in Europe later this year.David Brennan, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, said: “The strong second quarter earnings performance reflects our continued delivery of good sales growth and margin expansion.” Toprol XL sales in the USA were $732 million in the first half of the year, and Brennan said it was impossible to predict when generic competition to this product might start. AstraZeneca insists it has patent protection until September 2007, but lost a key legal judgement earlier this year, which it has appealed.Pipeline updateMeanwhile, there was a further blow to AstraZeneca’s pipeline after the firm announced that it was dropping an intravenous formulation of AZD7009 for the treatment of atrial fibrillation after disappointing Phase III results. The drug joins Galida (tesaglitazar) and Exanta (ximelegatran) among recent late-stage product failures at AstraZeneca, and raises pressure on the company to continue to buy in compounds to shore up its R&D portfolio.The company has already announced a string of deals in recent months, including a deal to develop a combination product based on Crestor and Abbott’s fibrate drug TriCor (fenofibrate), and of course its $1.3 billion offer to buy UK biotech unit Cambridge Antibody Technology earlier this year.In addition, AstraZeneca bought US biotech player KuDOS Pharmaceuticals for £121 million last year, licensed AGI-1067 for atherosclerosis from AtheroGenics in a deal valued at up to $1 billion, and also agreed a deal worth £173 million with US firm Targacept to develop a series of compounds for Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and other central nervous system disorders. It also paid £195 million for a septic shock drug, CytoFab, from Protherics, and bought joint rights to Abraxis Bioscience's Abraxane cancer therapy for £112 million.Top 10 products by first half 2006 sales

  1. Nexium $2.47bn +9%
  2. Seroquel $1.66bn +27%
  3. Seloken/Toprol XL $934m +11%
  4. Crestor $867m +47%
  5. Arimidex $714m +29%
  6. Losec/Prilosec $700m -19%
  7. Pulmicort $629m +7%
  8. Symbicort $585m +17%
  9. Casodex $580m +3%
  10. Atacand $530m +8%
Source: Merck & Co