Roche Profit Rises on Sales of Cancer Drugs

European pharmaceutical Roche reported a better-than-expected 25 percent increase in fourth-quarter net profit Wednesday on strong sales of its cancer drugs, despite lower sales of its key influenza drug Tamiflu.

Europe's largest drugmaker by market value posted a net profit of 11.4 billion Swiss francs ($10.4 billion) on Wednesday and said it expected a high single-digit sales increase this year with both of its units outpacing the market.

Analysts said overall market weakness was dragging Roche lower, while some investors might be disappointed by the guidance.

"It is certainly cautious but it is the usual cautiousness in guidance from Roche at the start of the year," said Bank Vontobel analyst Karlheinz Koch.

"The figures are generally very positive," he said.

Roche shares closed 2.2 percent higher.

Goldman Sachs recently downgraded Roche's stock on concerns that the current economic uncertainty will have an impact on sales going into 2008.

Roche CEO Dr. Franz Humer told CNBC Europe that growth prospects remained robust for 2008, saying "business remains around the world very strong."

"People do have the diseases we treat like cancer, like the requirement for transplantation, no matter what the economy does, and people want to be treated for that," Humer said.

Roche was resilient to the economic slowdown as they see "strong, consistent growth" in the emerging markets, especially Asia, he added.

The world's top cancer drugs and limited patent exposures helped Roche escape problems that beset competitors such as GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis.

Roche expects further strong growth in 2009 and 2010, as it launches Actemra for rheumatoid arthritis, Mircera for anemia and top-selling cancer drug MabThera in new rheumatoid arthritis indications.

Roche's full-year sales rose 10 percent to 46.1 billion francs, in line with forecasts, and its drugs revenue was 11 percent higher at 36.8 billion francs.

Tamiflu sales fell 19 percent to 2.1 billion francs as the company completed most pandemic stockpiling orders in the second half and it said it expected a large fall in 2008 sales.

"The growth of Tamiflu over the last three years was driven by the pandemic planning orders from the various governments of corporations around the world," Humer said. "Those to a large extent we have filled to the end of 2007. So the slowdown and reduction in Tamiflu sales was expected and predicted for quite some time."

Tamiflu sales were affected by an outbreak of a strain of the flu virus that is apparently resistant to the drug. Humer said the news surprised Roche as much as the experts, but said the virus was not the avian flu virus and that it did not change the pandemic planning requirements regarding avian flu with Tamiflu.

Promising Pipeline

Basel-based Roche proposed a 2007 dividend of 4.6 francs, up 35 percent, and highlighted promising drugs in the pipeline.

Roche will start a late-stage clinical trial of its R1658 cholesterol drug, which it licensed from Japan Tobacco, and which would compete with a medicine from Merck which is at a similar stage of development.

The company plans to ramp up research and development spending significantly this year and expects to decide on whether to take its R1583 compound in diabetes into late-stage trials in the first half.

Roche trades at more than 15 times its forecast 2008 earnings, according to Reuters data, at a premium to large-cap European rivals Glaxo, Sanofi, Novartis and AstraZeneca, which experienced tougher regulations, generic competition and patent exposure.

Roche had been expected to post net profit of 11.1 billion francs in 2007, according to a Reuters poll of 20 analysts, and report group sales of 46.1 billion francs.

- Reuters contributed to this story