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A tiny device that props open arteries, helps blood flow and keeps the arteries from closing up again quietly revolutionized coronary angioplasty treatment in recent years.

At the same time, the device -- called a stent -- has made hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for the Johnson & Johnson medical company.

In a Buffalo lawsuit, Johnson & Johnson is trying to stop a competitor from taking any of its worldwide profits from the device, a tubular, metal mesh device usually a quarter-inch to 2 inches long.

Billions of dollars in profits could be at stake over the next decade, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara was told during testimony last week.

"It's no exaggeration," said Dr. William M. Morris, a cardiologist and assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "The stent is the most important development in angioplasty since the beginning of angioplasty 20 years ago. It's a huge development that has tremendously increased the chances of success in angioplasty."

The lawsuit was filed by Cordis Corp., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

The company accuses Charles J. Soles, a Buffalo medical supply salesman, of trying to steal Johnson & Johnson's trade secrets about the stent and take them to a business competitor that also plans to sell the device.

Soles, a former sales executive for Johnson & Johnson, recently left the company for a similar position with Arterial Vascular Engineering. According to court papers, seven other Johnson & Johnson salesmen left with Soles to join the rival company.

"(Johnson & Johnson has) developed, through painstaking trial and error, the most valuable expertise on using, marketing and selling cardiac stent technology," Kevin English, a Buffalo attorney for Johnson & Johnson, said in court papers. "Soles' conduct constitutes a misappropriation of trade secrets."

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson said Soles and other sales executives had signed agreements promising they would not go to work for a competitor.

Soles, who lives in Alexander in Genesee County, and Arterial Vascular Engineering, a California company with worldwide offices, deny any wrongdoing.

"I don't feel like I've done anything wrong," Soles said Saturday. "This boils down to whether the new company can compete against the other company. It's my opinion that competition in the medical industry is good because it improves the quality of care for the patient and drives down the cost of health care."

Stents generally cost about $1,600. That is very expensive considering the actual cost of making the device, but not in terms of its effectiveness in helping blood flow, Morris said.

"I can't imagine it costs more than a few bucks to actually make one. The expense is in research and development," Morris said.

Glen Foley, sales director for Arterial Vascular Engineering, testified Friday that the company recruited its sales force legally, through newspaper ads and "friends in the business."

"You're saying there will be a billion dollars in projected annual sales by the year 2000?" Arcara asked.

"Correct," Foley said.

According to an April report in Money magazine, Johnson & Johnson holds about 50 percent of the world market on stents, with sales of $750 million last year. The report said the company's stents -- the first available in the United States -- have been on the market less than three years.

The use of stents in angioplasty made the national news in February. After being hospitalized with chest pains, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, at 76 the oldest member of the Court panel, quickly returned to work after having a stent inserted in a coronary artery.

Use of stents during such procedures has grown steadily -- in Buffalo and elsewhere -- in recent years, according to Morris, who knows Soles but has no connection to the federal lawsuit.

Angioplasty uses a surgical balloon to open clogged arteries. But the arteries quickly can close again after the procedure, Morris said.

"When you insert a stent, it props open the artery and provides a smooth channel for the blood to flow through," Morris said. "The stent greatly reduces the chance that the artery will close up again, either right after the procedure or months later."

While expressing no opinion on the merits of the federal lawsuit, Morris said patients everywhere will benefit by more competition in the market for stents. "In the long run, with competition, prices will come down, and that's good," the Buffalo physician said.

Arcara said testimony in the case will resume today. When he will decide whether to issue the injunction Johnson & Johnson officials are seeking remains unknown.

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