In a piece of news that is not entirely unexpected, Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX) on Monday reported 30% higher fourth-quarter profits, bolstered by strong overseas sales and currency effects.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the anticipated U.S. launch of its drug-coated stent, Taxus, which the company hopes to see happen by the end of the current quarter, depending on FDA approval of the device.

Boston Scientific's fourth-quarter earnings came in at $137 million, or $0.16 per share, compared to $105 million, or $0.12 a share, in the same period last year. Taking out special items, earnings totaled $141 million, or $0.17 per share, compared to $130 million, or $0.15 a share. Net sales rose 15% to $939 million, as opposed to $814 million last year (excluding the favorable impact of currency, net sales were $882 million).

However, as proof of just how important the Taxus launch will be, the company said in its conference call (transcript courtesy of CCBN StreetEvents) that domestic business was flat to down, reflecting the conversion from regular stents to the drug-eluting variety.

Stents are big business, with a worldwide market expected to reach $5 billion by 2005. Once the Taxus stent launches in the U.S. (it's already approved and marketed in Europe), it will compete with the only other drug-coated stent currently on the market, Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE:JNJ) Cypher stent. And if the competitive nature of these two devices weren't already evident, on Friday news broke that a June 2005 trial is scheduled regarding patent infringement lawsuits between the two companies. Meanwhile, Boston Scientific said that the FDA is currently inspecting its Maple Grove manufacturing facility, an important step towards approval.

Despite Boston Scientific's current chance of being an early entrant into the market, several other companies are waiting in the wings, developing similar drug-eluting stents that they hope to launch over the next several years; these companies include Guidant (NYSE:GDT) and Medtronic (NYSE:MDT). For now, Boston Scientific, upon receiving a regulatory green light, stands to steal some of the market share from Johnson & Johnson's Cypher stent, currently the only other game in town.

The early-entrant advantage is difficult to ignore.

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