By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — Riding a wave of soaring sales of its once-a-week multiple sclerosis drug, Biogen Inc. posted a record fourth quarter and year in 1997.
For the year, net income more than doubled, hitting $89.2 million with diluted earnings of $1.17 per share, compared to 1996's $40.5 million net and diluted earnings of $0.55 per share.
For the fourth quarter, the company posted revenues of $130.4 million, a 42 percent gain over the comparable quarter in 1996. Diluted earnings of $0.42 per share were nearly four times the $0.11 reported in the year-ago period.
Biogen credited its success to growing sales of the multiple sclerosis therapy Avonex (interferon beta-1a) in both the U.S. and Europe. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company reported that 35,000 patients worldwide are now receiving the once-a-week injections, which generated $240 million in sales worldwide for 1997 — Avonex's first full year on the market.
Avonex was approved in May 1996 and garnered revenues of $78 million in its launch year.
"Right now, Biogen's stock lives and dies by Avonex sales trends," said David Crossen, of NationsBank Montgomery Securities, in San Francisco. "The trends look very strong. I predict that the number of patients on Avonex will grow to 125,000 in the U.S. alone over a five-year period."
Crossen noted that the company has recovered the market share it lost when a competing product, Copaxone, developed by Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Jerusalem, was introduced early in 1997. In addition, Avonex has continued to win over patients taking Betaseron (interferon beta-1b), a competing product made by Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., that has been on the market since early 1996.
"Avonex has a more convenient dosing schedule and demonstrated lower levels of neutralizing antibodies, which indicate the drug is losing effectiveness," Crossen said.
Avonex garnered $10 million in sales in Europe during the fourth quarter of 1997, and Biogen predicted sales there will pick up during 1998.
In addition, the company highlighted progress in advancing the pipeline with four compounds in clinical trials: Avonex, for an expanded label; LFA3TIP, which is a potential psoriasis therapy; CVT-124, for the treatment of edema associated with congestive heart failure; 5c8/CD40 ligand, for idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura, lupus and Factor VIII antibody inhibition.
Crossen, however, noted that these products won't bring in revenues for at least three years.
Biogen's royalty revenues slipped in 1997 to $171.9 million, compared to $181.5 million in 1996. Fourth-quarter royalties, though, climbed to $53.5 million, a 25 percent gain over the the fourth-quarter 1996 total of $42.8 million.
Fourth-quarter expenses of $77.6 million were 3 percent below those of the comparable 1996 period, but for the year as a whole were up 21 percent, to $285.1 million.
Biogen's stock (NASDAQ:BGEN) closed Friday at $37.375, up $1.438. *