Biogen Inc. gave a glimpse of its fourth-quarter earnings Tuesday by disclosing that sales of the multiple sclerosis drug Avonex topped $120 million worldwide for the quarter.

The Cambridge, Mass., company said 1998 earnings, which will be fully released Thursday, are expected to come in at 54 cents per share for the fourth quarter and $1.80 for the year. Biogen's 1997 earnings were $1.17 per share.

Eric Hecht, a Merrill Lynch first vice president who recently upgraded his recommendation on Biogen, was anticipating $1.80 in 1998 earnings and fourth-quarter Avonex sales of $116 million. He also increased his projection, to $535 million, for 1999 Avonex sales.

"These numbers are basically in line, slightly better than what the Street has been saying," Hecht told BioWorld Today. "Biogen's earnings have been consistently upwardly revised [by analysts] all year long. The MS patients like Avonex. It's consumer pull-through demand for the product."

Avonex (interferon beta 1-a) now is being used by more than 55,000 patients worldwide, Biogen chairman and CEO Jim Vincent said in releasing sales figures at the Hambrecht & Quist Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. That's an increase of 20,000 patients from a year ago and 4,000 from the end of the third quarter.

"We can now see that 100,000 patients on Avonex worldwide should be an achievable goal over the next several years," Vincent said in a prepared statement.

Biogen's stock (NASDAQ:BGEN) gained $7 per share Tuesday to close at $89. - Jim Shrine

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