Tough times for stent market

The market for drug-delivering heart stents has been spiraling toward earth since safety questions emerged last year. Experts say sales of the tiny devices will shrink by one-third in the U.S. this year--a drop of about $1 billion. The troubles have prompted big cuts at stent-makers Johnson & Johnson--which is shrinking by about 5,000 jobs, in part because of a 41 percent drop in Cypher stent sales--and Boston Scientific, which has seen a 32 percent decline in sales of its Taxus stent.

In mid-2006, research showed that the drug-coated stents caused a small increase in the risk of life-threatening blood clots, and by December the FDA was warning against off-label uses of the devices. The latter may have been the biggest blow, because about 60 percent of the implants were installed off-label.

The worst may be yet to come: one analyst predicts that the stent market will hit bottom in two or three quarters. However, the industry is working on a new generation of stents, hoping to jump-start the market.

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