Health Valley
Text: Serge Maillard

At the heart of cardiovascular technology

The US giant St. Jude Medical recently bought the Geneva-based heart surgery specialist Endosense. This is an asset for the region which already hosts two leading companies in the sector, Medtronic and Edwards Lifesciences.


Cardiology A new giant of innovation in cardiac surgery has been established on the banks of Lake Geneva. At the end of August, St. Jude Medical, worth $5.5 billion, announced it was buying out Endosense, a small company based in Meyrin (Geneva) and founded in 2003. Endosense’s flagship product is an ablation catheter used to treat cardiac arrhythmia, the most common heart condition. The takeover, for more than 300 million Swiss francs, demonstrates that the region is becoming increasingly specialised in cardiac surgery technology. The trend is demonstrated by a surprising figure: a quarter of pacemakers in the world are produced in French-speaking Switzerland by the American company Medtronic. Based in Tolochenaz (Vaud), Medtronic controls more than 50% of the global pacemaker market. Edwards Lifesciences, another US medical technology giant and the world’s number-one manufacturer of artificial heart valves, is located just a few kilometres away. The multinational built a new EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) head office in Nyon in 2009.

“We have developed very strong relations with the region’s leading doctors,” says Eric Gasser, spokesperson for Medtronic in Switzerland. “This dialogue allows us to continually develop our products and treatments. We are not scientists, isolated in a laboratory!” Four years ago, for example, the company helped to launch the MD Start think tank, on the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) campus. One of MD Start’s missions is to follow up on projects initiated on Medtronic’s online discussion forum, the “Eureka” platform. In pacemakers, one of the most important advances made over the last few years was the launch of models compatible with MRI scanners. “Previously, patients with a pacemaker could not have an MRI scan owing to potentially fatal electromagnetic interference,” explains Eric Gasser. Medtronic is now working on making pacemakers smaller so that they can be fitted directly on the heart without metal connectors.

Avoiding open heart surgery

According to Enrico Ferrari, Associate Physician at the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery of the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), the most important innovation in the field in the past few years is the development of artificial heart valves for percutaneous implantation. By avoiding open heart surgery, the new technique, introduced by Edwards Lifesciences, makes it possible to treat high-risk surgical patients who were previously inoperable. One of the minimally invasive techniques consists in using a catheter to insert a valve into the femoral artery and guide it to the heart to replace the diseased valve. “Other possible access routes exist to avoid open heart surgery, for example through the apex, the tip of the heart, or the ascending thoracic aorta,” says Enrico Ferrari. “The procedure is very quick and guarantees excellent results.”

Announcing the long-awaited launch of the third generation of this product, Edwards Lifesciences spokesperson Richard Harbin said: “It will facilitate the positioning of the valve and help to reduce the number of complications, such as bleeding or leaks.” Every year, Edwards Lifesciences also hosts hundreds of doctors from all over the world at its offices in Nyon, teaching them how to insert these valves. This is yet another way of placing Health Valley on the world map. ⁄



High-tech devices to treat heart disease – below, the Medtronic pacemaker, the Edwards Lifesciences valve and the Endosense catheter – are produced in the Lake Geneva region.