Abbott Laboratories (ABT) reported a 44% jump in first-quarter profit and beat Wall Street expectations on Wednesday, led by sharp year-over-year gains in its nutritional business and strong demand for its Humira arthritis drug.

The company also lifted its 2012 earnings forecast to between $5 and $5.10 a share from an earlier range of $4.95 to $5.05. Analysts are looking for a full-year profit of $5.

That is especially noteworthy as it reflects the company’s ongoing strategy to develop new drugs as the patent cliff continues to cause some of the biggest healthcare giants to lose patent exclusivity for some of their most profitable medications.

Including special costs related to research and development, cost-reduction initiatives and acquisitions, the company sees full-year earnings between $4.48 and $4.58 a share.

The pharmaceutical giant reported net earnings in its latest quarter of $1.2 billion, or 78 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier $864 million, or 55 cents.

The growth reflects 10%, 19.3% and 7.1% sales growth in its nutritionals, points of care diagnostics and proprietary pharmaceuticals businesses, respectively, from a year ago.

During the quarter, Abbott announced plans to build a new nutrition manufacturing facility in the U.S. that will produce three of the company’s fastest-growing brands, PediaSure, Ensure and Glucerna. It is expected to be operational in late 2013.

Excluding one-time items, Abbott made $1.03, which is ahead of average analyst estimates of a dollar in a Thomson Reuters poll.

Revenue for the three months ended March 31 was $9.46 billion, up 4.6% from $9.04 billion a year ago, topping the Street’s view of $9.36 billion.

Sales of Humira, the company’s biggest product, jumped 17% to $1.93 billion, putting it on track to surpass Lipitor as the world’s most-selling medicine.  

“Abbott is off to a strong start in 2012, delivering double-digit ongoing earnings-per-share growth," the company’s CEO, Miles White, said in a statement.

The company remains focused on separating Abbott into two health care companies, which remains on track to be completed by the end of the year, he said.

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