Shares of

Novartis

(NVS) - Get Report

advanced Thursday after the Swiss pharmaceutical giant posted first-quarter results that easily beat returns for the same period last year.

Novartis, the sixth-largest seller of drugs in the U.S., earned $1.48 billion, or 63 cents a share, on revenue of $7.34 billion for the three months ended March 31. For the same period last year, it earned $1.27 billion, or 54 cents a share, on revenue of $6.64 billion.

"We anticipate delivering a competitive performance in 2005 with record sales and, on a comparable basis, record earnings," said Daniel Vasella, the chairman and CEO, in prepared remarks.

The Sandoz generic drug division produced a 12% sales gain to $803 million, thanks in part to a pair of acquisitions last year. The division would become the largest seller of generic drugs in the world if regulators approve Novartis' recent $8.3 billion bid to buy the private

Hexal AG

, the second-largest generic drug company in Germany, and

Eon Labs

(ELAB)

, a U.S. generic company. Both are controlled by a German holding company.

Novartis said Thursday that the deal is still expected to close during the second half of this year.

Prescription drugs, Novartis' biggest business, grew by 11% to $4.8 billion during the first quarter. Strong performers included the cancer drugs Gleevec, Femara and Zometa, the blood pressure medication Diovan and the eczema drug Elidel.

Novartis said it is continuing its discussions with the Food and Drug Administration on a revised label for Elidel. The FDA wants a so-called black-box warning to reflect a potential cancer risk.

The stock was up 85 cents, or 1.8%, to $48.84