Updated from 1:55 p.m. EST

Executives of



Friday reaffirmed their predictions that earnings per share would grow a minimum of 20% this year and for the first time said they'd do it again in 2005.

And for good measure, they also told a group of analysts and investors gathered in New York that annual EPS growth should be 20% through 2010. All of the company's estimates are made on a non-GAAP (generally accepted accounting practices) basis.

But the company's 2004 and 2005 predictions fell below consensus opinions according to Thomson One Analytics. Based on last year's $1.20 earnings per share, which excludes one-time charges, the company's 2004 prediction would be $1.44, or 10 cents below the consensus.

And based on the company's 2004 estimate, the 2005 EPS prediction of $1.73 is 39 cents lower than the consensus. Some analysts grumbled that the company was being overly cautious given the fact that it has several fast-growing and promising drugs in the marketplace.

Investors didn't appear concerned. In mid-afternoon trading, Genentech's stock was up $1.67, or 1.58%, to $107.70. Shares traded as high as $109.49.

The stock has more than doubled since last May thanks to the growth of the company's biggest product, Rituxan, for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which produced $1.49 billion in revenue last year. That accounted for 45% of total revenue. The company also enjoyed steady sales growth in Herceptin, a treatment for advanced breast cancer, which netted $425 million in sales last year.

The stock is also being driven by the Wall Street's predictions for Avastin, the treatment for advanced colorectal cancer, which has been on the market for less than two weeks following its approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Within the last nine months, Genentech has launched Avastin; Xolair for asthma; and Raptiva for psoriasis.

The growth prospects are sufficiently strong, said Arthur D. Levinson, Genentech's chairman and chief executive, that the company plans to hire 1800 people this year, a nearly 30% gain over last year. Last year, Genentech hired also 1800 workers.

Future growth will depend not only on new products but also on securing FDA approvals of new uses for existing drugs. This is especially true in the cancer-therapy arena, where Genentech has emerged as the third biggest company in terms of sales.

Doctors are allowed, by law, to use drugs on any disease once that drug has been approved for a specific disease. But because Genentech can only market a drug for an FDA-approved use, obtaining more FDA approvals will help in its marketing efforts as well in obtaining greater coverage by insurers.

Take Rituxan, for example. It is approved for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes that affects the immune system. Genentech showed analysts data on this disease Friday, but it added information about patients suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), another lymphatic cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood. Genentech is in late-stage clinical tests of Rituxan for CLL as well as for rheumatoid arthritis.

Avastin is also a good example. It has been approved for metastatic colorectal cancer (meaning the disease has spread to other parts of the body), and the company is conducting or preparing to conduct late stage clinical tests for Avastin as a treatment for advanced breast cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.

The company's progress and strategy indicate that Genentech won't be on the market for a big acquisition, said Louis J. Lavigne, the company's chief financial officer. A big deal "would be a significant distraction" given the fact that Genentech is in the early launch of three new drugs as well as seeking regulatory approvals of other drugs and expanded approvals of several existing drugs, he said.

However, that doesn't mean the company is eschewing licensing deals, co-development and co-marketing agreements and other alliances, or even a small acquisition to fill in a specific research niche. Many of the company's drugs are the result of some sort of commercial or scientific alliance. "We want to be the alliance company of choice," Lavigne said.