You know, it's not supposed to be like this. According to the "buy and hold forever" investment books that you can find in any library, owning stock in big pharmaceuticals like Merck (NYSE:MRK) is supposed to be an exercise in cashing dividend checks and watching the share price move slowly but steadily upward. After all, the combination of cutting-edge science and chronic-health-care therapies is supposed to be a no-lose proposition.

Well, it can be, if you can be patient enough to weather the storms.

Merck has seen more than its share of storms of late. But for all the angst, sales in the first quarter were only down 5%, and excluding the impact of Vioxx, sales would have been up 8%. Net income was also down for the quarter (about 15%), but at about $1.37 billion, it was hardly a disaster.

Among the company's biggest products, Singulair revenue grew 18% to $735 million, and Cozaar/Hyzaar sales grew 14% to $719 million. Two other big names, Zocor and Fosamax, were a little less impressive. Zocor sales were down 15% to $1.1 billion, and Fosamax sales were up 2% to $772 million.

Another bright spot was the company's joint venture with Schering-Plough (NYSE:SGP) for the sale of cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin. Not only did joint venture sales more than double for the quarter, but Vytorin also accounted for 5% of new lipid-lowering prescriptions in March.

As we've discussed here at The Motley Fool before, Merck has some high-potential drug candidates very close to hitting the market. Muraglitizar, the first of a new class of oral drugs for treating type 2 diabetes, has been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, and the company, along with its partner, Bristol Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY), could see approval some time this year. Based upon sales of earlier related drugs, Muraglitizar could see sales upwards of $2 billion a year, and it should be at least a year ahead of any competition.

Merck also plans to submit an application in the second half of the year for Gardasil, a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), genital warts, and related cervical cancers. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women, killing 288,000 worldwide each year, and given that nearly all cases are related to HPV, Gardasil could have huge potential for Merck.

With over 2,300 Vioxx lawsuits filed already, Merck will certainly have its hands full for some time to come. Nevertheless, the base business at Merck seems strong, and the pipeline should give investors reason to expect that better things could be on the way. Though Merck is not the safest pick in the pharma space, the stock is not expensive, the company pays a good dividend, and the pipeline should deliver impressive revenue in a few years' time.

For more on Merck, feel free to check out these past Takes:

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).