Drugmaker Merck’s first-quarter revenue rose 6 percent, driven by a huge jump in sales of cancer blockbuster Keytruda, but a $1.4 billion charge for starting a research partnership with Japanese drugmaker Eisai dragged down profits by more than half.
Despite that deal, analysts on a call to discuss Merck’s results Tuesday peppered company executives about plans for major acquisitions or other strategies to diversify, given that Keytruda now accounts for about 15 percent of total revenue.
Merck already has approvals for treating seven tumor types with Keytruda, which has grabbed the lead in the white-hot field of immuno-oncology, or cancer drugs that work by removing a sort-of invisibility cloak so immune system cells can better spot and attack cancerous cells. U.S. regulatory approvals are pending for additional uses, and recent study data show that Keytruda plus chemotherapy cut risk of death in half compared with just chemotherapy in advanced lung cancer. Meanwhile, the company is running about 750 patient studies of Keytruda alone or in combination with other drugs.
Merck executives said they have plenty of money to do a deal of any size, with about $20 billion of cash on hand and room to borrow more, but they’re not necessarily looking for a mega-deal. They also stressed that Merck’s animal-health business, which analysts have been pressing it to divest, provides both diversification and synergies with research in the human-health division.
“I am very optimistic about our near and long-term growth trajectory,” Chief Executive Ken Frazier told the analysts.
The maker of vaccines and diabetes drug Januvia reported net income of $736 million, or 27 cents per share, down from $1.55 billion, or 56 cents per share, a year earlier. Earnings, adjusted for one-time costs, came to $1.05 per share, 6 cents better than Wall Street analysts had projected.
Total revenue of $10.04 billion was just shy of the $10.12 billion many analysts had expected.
“This was a solid quarter for Merck,” Edward Jones analyst Ashtyn Evans wrote to investors. “We think growth from Keytruda will help counter declining sales from competitive pressures in areas such as diabetes and hepatitis C.”
“We also think Merck may use its strong financial position for additional acquisitions to add to growth,” she wrote.
Prescription drug sales rose 4 percent to $8.92 billion, and veterinary medicine sales jumped 13 percent to $1.07 billion in the quarter.
The Kenilworth, New Jersey, company tweaked its 2018 financial forecast. It now expects full-year earnings between $4.16 and $4.28 per share, with revenue between $41.8 billion and $43 billion.
In trading early Tuesday afternoon, Merck shares were down $1.72, or 2.9 percent, to $57.15.