Chiron

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is like

Northwestern Mutual Life

: It's the quiet company of biotech. Unfortunately, investors would benefit more if Chiron would just start raising the roof.

That didn't happen Wednesday night. The Emeryville, Calif.-company posted first quarter results that, while beating estimates by 2 cents, did nothing to get many folks excited. Based on its history and brand-name recognition, Chiron should be a biotech all-star. Instead, its lackluster menu of current and potential products -- and relatively high valuation -- keeps the company on the bench.

For the first quarter, Chiron posted a profit of $38 million, or 19 cents per share, minus special items. Total revenue rose 11% year over year to $240 million.

Digging deeper into sales, results were mixed, although nothing caught observers by surprise. The company's biopharmaceutical unit, which includes sales of Tobi, a cystic fibrosis drug, reported an 82% jump in year-over-year sales to $88 million.

Sales in Chiron's vaccine unit fell 29% to $78 million, compared with the year-ago quarter. Analysts were expecting the shortfall, due to an unusually large sale of the meningitis-C drug Menjugate to the United Kingdom in the first quarter 2000. Chiron's blood-testing arm also posted gains during the first quarter.

"Chiron just keeps plugging away, but unfortunately, none of its

current products are ever going to be huge sellers," says

Morningstar

biotech analyst Emily Hall. Morningstar doesn't rate stocks and does no underwriting.

Like most biotechs, observers pay close attention to Chiron's development pipeline for new products. But even here, the offerings are rather slim compared with its rivals.

Chiron's next

new new thing will be a super-sensitive test to screen for HIV and hepatitis in donated blood. The test is already being used on an experimental basis to screen 70% of the U.S. blood supply, but Chiron needs approval from the

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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before it can charge full freight. That approval is expected in the beginning of July, which could eventually generate upwards of $500 million in global annual peak sales for the company, according to estimates from several Wall Street analysts.

Chiron is also developing an experimental drug dubbed, TFPI, to treat patients stricken with sepsis, the fatal blood infection that killed Muppets mastermind

Jim Henson

. But TFPI is still being tested, and is about a year behind a similar sepsis drug, Zovant, from

Eli Lilly & Co.

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, which could be approved in July.

"If Zovant gets approval in July, it could slow down patient enrollment in Chiron's trial and push back development of the drug," says Elise Wang, biotech analyst with

Salomon Smith Barney

, who rates Chiron neutral. Her firm doesn't do banking for Chiron.

Peder Jensen, Chiron's head of development, told analysts on the company's Wednesday night conference call that patient enrollment in the TPFI trial is on track to reach 2,000 by the end of the year. Results from the test and an application for approval are expected next year.

"We don't know when Zovant will be approved, but we believe that we have a majority of our patients needed in our study and we will be able to bring it to completion even if

Zovant gets approval," he said. "There is demand for more than one product

to treat sepsis."

So, all this might sound like unfair piling on, especially for a company that consistently delivers steady, albeit unspectacular, earnings. But Chiron is an expensive stock. Share in the company closed Wednesday up 2.3% to $43.79, which means it trades at 51 times its own 2001 earnings estimates of 85 cents per share. Quiet companies shouldn't trade at such high multiples, observers say.

"Chiron's high valuation is on par with some of the stronger players in the industry, yet its biopharmaceutical pipeline is pretty weak and its growth potential is uneven," says Morningstar's Hall. "I generally find Chiron to be one of the less-appealing choices among the big biotech companies."

That is, until the company can start shattering investor eardrums.