(Bloomberg) -- Roche Holding AG’s first-quarter sales rose 4 percent thanks to new medicines as the world’s biggest maker of cancer therapies faces competition from cheaper copies of its older best-selling drugs.

Revenue increased to 12.9 billion Swiss francs ($13 billion) from 12.4 billion francs a year earlier, the Basel, Switzerland-based company said Thursday in a statement. That beat the 12.7 billion-franc average estimate of seven analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

A trinity of cancer drugs -- Herceptin, Rituxan and Avastin -- has buoyed Roche’s profit for years. With those three therapies aging and losing patent protection, Roche is the drugmaker most exposed to revenue loss due to cheaper versions of complex medicines made by living cells, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. The company could lose nearly 4 billion francs in sales to those copies, known as biosimilars, in 2020, Bernstein analysts wrote in a report.

Competition started in February with Celltrion Inc.’s European approval for a biosimilar version of Rituxan, used for leukemia, lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis. A European drug oversight panel backed a second Rituxan biosimilar, from Novartis AG, this month, with full approval likely by the middle of the year.

Roche repeated its forecast, issued in February, for percentage sales growth in the low- to mid-single digits and an increase in core earnings per share broadly in line with sales.

Roche shares have returned 14 percent this year including dividends, compared with an 11 percent return for the Bloomberg European Pharmaceutical Index.

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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chitra Somayaji at, Phil Serafino

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