One of the seemingly few drug companies not bedeviled by patent expirations or drug safety issues, Novartis (NYSE:NVS) keeps on plugging ahead as one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the game.

Sales for the first quarter were up 11% (7% on a constant currency basis) to $7.3 billion. The company's Sandoz generics business and consumer health group both contributed, but once again the name of the game was prescription pharmaceuticals.

Quarterly sales of cardiovascular drugs climbed 7% (12% if mature products are excluded), led in part by 17% growth in Diovan and 4% growth in Lotrel sales. Diovan remains Novartis' single largest drug, at $845 million in revenue for the quarter, and boasts a market share of 38% of the angiotensin receptor blocker market.

Oncology sales were also very strong in the quarter, climbing 26% as a group. Gleevec led the way with 41% growth ($496 million in revenue), and the company continues to secure expanded labeling claims for this successful cancer-fighting drug. Zometa, Sandostatin, and Femara all also posted double-digit sales growth, with Femara revenue growing 51% over the prior year.

But solid drug sales aren't the sole secret to success at Novartis. While gross margins held steady, the company was able to improve operating margins by a full percentage point. This in turn led to operating income and net income growth of 16% for the quarter.

Novartis also has plenty of major events on the horizon. Completion of the acquisitions of generics companies Hexal and Eon Labs will make Sandoz dramatically larger -- rivaling the company's own prescription pharmaceutical business.

On the clinical front, Novartis has several high-potential projects under way, including a new therapy for multiple sclerosis (FTY720) going into phase 3 studies; PTK/ZK for colorectal cancer, expected to be filed in 2007); Lucentis for age-related macular degeneration, in partnership with Genentech (NYSE:DNA); and LAF237 for diabetes, with phase 3 data coming near the end of the year.

Novartis isn't one of the cheapest pharmaceutical companies around, but it has a legitimate claim to being one of the best. With a broadly diversified portfolio of approved products, a very strong pipeline, and a major emerging presence in the generics business, it's hard not to think of Novartis as one of the highest-quality options in the pharmaceutical space.

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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).