Medtronic filed a patent infringement lawsuit in Ireland against Guidant Corp.’s Vision and Xience stents (tiny tubes that prop open arteries) alleging that the stents infringe patents licensed to Medtronic from Evysio Medical Devices, a Canadian company. Medtronic is seeking an injunction and monetary damages.

This is high-stakes for both Medtronic and Guidant as they try to muscle into the $6 billion U.S. market for drug-coated stents – now the domain of Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific. Lawsuits have also been filed in U.S. District Court in northern California and in France. A French court ruled that Guidant’s Vision stent may infringe the Evysio patents. Guidant’s Vision stent is the foundation of their Xience drug-eluting stent.

Patent woes are also posing trouble for Boston Scientific, which in January agreed to buy Guidant for $27 billion. A successful fight in Ireland where Vision is manufactured, for example, could put the Xience European launch at risk. There is argument, though, about whether the latest patent claims are note-worthy or are simply a footnote in the competitive $5 billion to $6 billion stent business.

Some analysts suggest Medtronic’s patent suits are really an effort to create bargaining chips to benefit its own stent project. Medtronic is marketing a drug-coated stent internationally called Endeavor, and hopes to bring it to the U.S. in 2007. However, the company doesn’t currently have access to “rapid exchange,” a key delivery system that’s now the favored way to install stents. If Medtronic can create a strong case against Guidant’s product, it can later agree to drop that case in return for access to rapid exchange.

The two most common types of delivery system in the United States are over-the-wire and Rapid Exchange (“RX”). Over-the-wire delivery systems employ a long guidewire and require two operators to implant the stents. In contrast, the RX delivery system employs a shorter guidewire that can be handled by a single operator. RX delivery systems currently are preferred by physicians.

Johnson & Johnson, which had planned to buy Guidant before Boston Scientific won a bidding war, holds patents for the family of drugs used on the Guidant and Abbott stents.

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