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New drug sales help boost Novartis Q1 profit

John Heilprin, Associated Press

FILE - The Aug. 12, 2005 file photo shows the logo of Swiss company Novartis in Basel, Switzerland. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG announced a series of multibillion-dollar deals Tuesday, April 22, 2014 with other major pharmaceutical companies that it said would reduce sales but boost profitability, while affecting some 15,000 of its employees globally. (AP Photo/Keystone, Steffen Schmidt)

GENEVA (AP) -- Strong new drug sales and higher operating income helped Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis AG report a 24 percent rise in first-quarter profit.

The company said Thursday that its net profit of nearly $2.97 billion, up from $2.42 billion in the same period last year, was helped by sales growth from some of its newest product launches, such as Gilenya for multiple sclerosis and Afinitor for cancer, and higher operating income.

The company based in Basel, Switzerland, has been counting on these new drugs to offset patent expirations, such as its blockbuster heart drug Diovan which lost U.S. protection in 2012.

Also helping was a $900 million pretax gain from selling part of its diagnostics business to the Spanish health care company Grifols SA for $1.68 billion in November.

The company noted that the strong new drug sales were reinforced by asthma treatment Xolair gaining approval in the European Union and United States and meningitis B vaccine Bexsero being recommended in the U.K. and gaining new designation in the U.S. Growth in emerging markets, particularly China, also helped.

"Novartis delivered a solid quarter, with all divisions contributing to growth," CEO Joseph Jimenez said.

But the company's overall sales rose only 1 percent, to $14.02 billion, in large part due to pressure that some of its drugs, such as Afinitor for cancer and Glivec for leukemia, face from competition by generic suppliers.

Jimenez emphasized that the major overhaul of its business that Novartis launched Tuesday — a series of "transformational" multibillion-dollar deals with Britain's GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Eli Lilly & Co. of the United States — would "position the company for future success based on our sharpened focus, innovation power and financial strength."

Novartis shares dropped 1.9 percent to close at 74.80 Swiss francs Thursday, after rising by 3 percent in the wake of Tuesday's announcement.