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Novartis picks Centerview to explore sale of dermatology unit -sources

LONDON/FRANKFURT, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Novartis is working with Centerview to review options for its dermatology business, including a possible sale, as it trims non-core assets, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The mandate, which comes after Novartis' $3.9 billion purchase of French radiopharmaceutical firm Advanced Accelerator Applications (AAA), is likely to pave the way for a sale of the group's dermatology drugs, which could fetch up to $1.5 billion, the sources said.

Novartis says its 131-year old generics business Sandoz runs the largest dermatology portfolio by sales among generics makers, offering anything from steroid ointments to creams for atopic dermatitis and genital warts.

But Sandoz was recently hurt by price pressure in the United States, prompting it to discontinue some of its drugs and close a plant in Colorado.

A sale of its dermatology drugs could draw interest from private equity investors and large industry players, the sources said, cautioning that the process is at a preliminary stage and no deal is certain.

Novartis declined to comment while Centerview was not immediately available.

Sandoz was established in Basel in 1886 by Alfred Kern and Edouard Sandoz. By 1895 it had produced its first pharmaceutical substance, antipyrine, which was a fever-controlling agent.

In 1996 Sandoz - whose dermatology portfolio also includes antifungal treatments - was merged with rival Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, one of the biggest healthcare firms with a market value of $216 billion.

Novartis has used bolt-on deals to boost Sandoz's dermatology product range in recent years but none of its drugs is among the unit's top 10 retail sellers in the sector.

Last year it purchased skin care specialist AmLactin from Minnesota's Upsher-Smith Laboratories while in 2012 it clinched control of New York-based Fougera in a $1.53 billion acquisition.

Novartis is also moving closer to spinning off its ailing Alcon eyecare business, a unit which could be worth $25 billion-$35 billion. However, a final decision would depend on Alcon's continued sales growth as Novartis boss Joe Jimenez wants to see more results before pulling the trigger on the long-awaited deal. (Reporting By Pamela Barbaglia; Editing by Susan Fenton)