AbbVie is pharma's first birth of the new year

One of the biggest deals of the year is already done. Abbott Laboratories' ($ABT) pharmaceuticals business was reborn as an independent company on New Year's Day, in a spinoff that matched every Abbott share with a share of the new AbbVie ($ABBV) stock.

Now that it's official, AbbVie has to hit the ground running. For the next few years, its sales will be powered by Humira, the anti-inflammatory remedy now approved for a host of indications, including rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and psoriasis. With $9 billion in sales, Humira offers a strong flow of cash to support the new company.

But Humira's patent expires in 2016, and it faces a slate of formidable competitors, including Pfizer's ($PFE) newly minted Xeljanz for rheumatoid arthritis. The company lost patent protection for a couple of key cholesterol drugs last year--TriCor and Trilipix--and another, Niaspan, falls off patent this year, putting another $835 million in sales at risk. AbbVie needs to keep Humira pumping out sales--and to churn out some solid new products to take up where Humira leaves off.

The question is whether AbbVie will have the time. And we're not just talking about Humira's looming patent expiration. Almost as soon as Abbott's spinoff plans were announced, market wags were speculating about an AbbVie buyout. Analysts have put forward several merger candidates, including Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) (an AbbVie research partner that needs some pipeline help of its own these days) and Roche ($RHHBY) (which is more interested in gene sequencing than megamergers, but speculation doesn't always account for facts). Will the rumors turn into offers? Place your bets now.

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