What's that ticking? That's actually the sound of the countdown to Boston Scientific's (NYSE:BSX) FDA approval and subsequent launch of its much-touted Taxus drug-eluting stent, which was all over the news yesterday. So, surprise! Today, competitors Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Guidant (NYSE:GDT) announced a deal to co-promote J&J's Cypher stent.

The deal may not be a shocker -- given Boston Scientific's been flexing its muscles -- but it's jam-packed with interesting angles. Despite this linkup with a rival, Guidant still plans to launch its own drug-coated stent in 2006 (depending on the success of upcoming clinical trials, of course), though this deal will boost its own earnings for the time being. Meanwhile, the partnership settles patent disputes between itself and J&J, making it that much easier to gain approval for its own stent. It also gives Guidant immediate entry into the market.

What's in it for J&J? A doubled field team and the addition of Guidant sales personnel to its own sales force. Also, it will have access to Guidant's "bioabsorbable" polymer technology, which could add up to an improved J&J stent down the road. However, that exact feature -- that the polymer that makes up the stent and delivers the drug will eventually be absorbed into the body -- was Guidant's real differentiating characteristic before. Hmm.

Yesterday, Boston Scientific (which partnered with Angiotech Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ANPI) on Taxus) was slinging some fighting words at an analyst meeting. In the past, it was surmised that Boston Scientific and J&J could share close to a 50/50 split in their takes of the market, but Boston Scientific said it believes Taxus could conquer as much as 65%. J&J's Cypher is currently the only game in town here in the U.S. The market for stents is widely expected to reach $5 billion by 2005.

Another company that plans to enter the fray is Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) and its partner in stents, Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT). Medtronic's product is in about the same stage of development as Guidant's; the latest development is enough to make one wonder whether Medtronic will just stay on the sidelines.

So, the stent wars heated up over the last few days, adding up to some surprising allies. It's good to see J&J's making a bid to stay in the game, and now Guidant gets in the game early. Sounds like a good time to bolster the defenses, with Taxus approval anticipated within the next 10 days. Stay tuned for the next strategic move.

Talk over the ins and outs of this newest development in the stent wars with other Fools on the Johnson & Johnson discussion board.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned, but she welcomes feedback on your stance on stents.