Avastin, Herceptin and Tamiflu power Roche to 6% sales growth in Q1

Cancer and flu powered Roche to an impressive 13% increase in U.S. pharma sales for the first quarter--and 6% growth in overall sales. The effects of a nasty flu season may wear off quickly, but two newly launched breast cancer drugs should help to keep the oncology increases coming.

Two of Roche's ($RHHBY) established cancer meds, Herceptin and Avastin, gave its cancer sales the biggest boost. Both drugs delivered 11% growth, ending the quarter with 1.572 billion francs and 1.527 billion francs, respectively. (That's about $1.69 billion and $1.64 billion.) Herceptin benefited from growth in testing for HER2 expression, the hallmark of tumors targeted by the drug, plus growing use in HER2-positive gastric cancer, the company said. Avastin, for its part, is making inroads in ovarian cancer in Europe, where the use was recently approved, as well as broader use in colon cancer. The drug is almost back up to 2010 sales levels, prior to its loss of the breast cancer indication in the U.S.

"The wash-out of the breast cancer indication is now behind them," Helvea analyst Olie Rundquist told Bloomberg. "Thanks to strong uptake in their two new indications, ovarian cancer and treatment across multiple lines in metastatic colorectal cancer, it will probably continue to have a good growth rate."

Herceptin could soon face generic competition, particularly in India, where the government is considering a compulsory license to force low-cost copies onto the market. But biosimilar rivals in major markets are still some years off, and in the meantime, Roche's newer HER2 drugs will be gathering speed: Perjeta, intended to be used in combination with Herceptin, and Kadcyla, the armed antibody drug some call Super-Herceptin. Perjeta won E.U. approval and Kadcyla got the FDA nod earlier this year.

Roche's top seller, MabThera--sold as Rituxan in the U.S., and used to treat inflammatory conditions as well as cancer--powered forward in the first quarter, too, with 6% growth to 1.7 billion francs, or $1.8 billion. Percentage-wise, by far the biggest increase was in sales of Zelboraf, the company's new targeted melanoma drug, which brought in 84 million francs, an increase of 154%.

CEO Severin Schwan

Outside oncology, the big leaper was Tamiflu and its 84% increase in sales, to $335 million. Actemra jumped 32% to 238 million francs, aided by an increase in monotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis; it was the biggest lift to U.S. growth. And Activase grew by 35% to 190 million francs.

"We got off to a very good start in 2013," CEO Severin Schwan said in a release. "The launch of two new cancer drugs, Kadcyla in the United States and Perjeta in Europe, will help to further improve our leading market position in oncology. Based on the first-quarter results, I am confident we will meet our full-year targets."

- read the Roche statement
- get the Bloomberg story
- check out FierceMedicalDevices' take on Roche Diagnostics