Roche highlights strong 2013 sales of cancer drugs, vows to boost dividend

Swiss pharma giant Roche ($RHHBY) has had a few glitches of late, with the loss of its R&D chief to Google ($GOOG) and the recent failure of its highly anticipated experimental schizophrenia drug. But it was positive news today as the company reported 2013 sales rose 6% to 46.8 billion francs ($52.1 billion). That growth was fueled once again by strong sales of its cancer drugs, which include Herceptin, Avastin, and Xeloda. The company reported that its net income rose 22% to 11.4 billion francs ($12.7 billion).

Roche, which is preparing for the risk of biosimilar competition on some of its older drugs, told investors in its earnings release to expect sales growth in the low- to mid-single-digits this year and earnings-per-share growth "ahead of sales." Roche expects to raise the dividend this year, with the company's board suggesting a 6% boost to 7.80 francs per share, or $8.67.

It wasn't just Roche's cancer drugs that outperformed during the year. Sales of Lucentis, used to treat age-related macular degeneration, were up 15% to 1.7 billion francs ($1.9 billion), while Actemra for rheumatoid arthritis brought in $1 billion francs ($1.1 billion), up 30% from last year.

The positive earnings announcement came after several months of changes and short-term pressures at Roche. In November, legendary R&D chief Hal Barron left the company to join Google's life sciences startup Calico. Roche replaced him with Sandra Horning, who had previously headed up clinical development for the drugmaker's oncology and hematology businesses.

Then, in January--right at the height of flu season--a packaging snafu at a Genentech manufacturing plant caused a two-week shortage of its hit drug Tamiflu. And Roche announced that its highly anticipated experimental schizophrenia drug bitopertin failed its first Phase III trial. The company is waiting for data from additional studies before deciding how to proceed.

Roche's most worrying threat to sales is potential competition on its blockbuster drugs Herceptin for breast cancer and Rituxan for lymphoma, both of which analysts predict could see biosimilar versions hitting the market as soon as next year. But today Roche drew attention to the potential hits waiting in the wings, noting that it has 66 new molecular entities in its pipeline, 15 of which are in late-stage development. "With our strong product pipeline we are well positioned for future success," said Roche CEO Severin Schwan in the release.

- read the earnings release
- here's the Pharma Times's take