Direct Flow Medical is taking the next step in its attempt to show it has a better system for replacing heart valves without surgery.
The Santa Rosa company, which is competing with such medical device giants as Medtronic and Edwards Lifesciences, this month began a U.S. trial for its transcatheter aortic heart valve system. Earlier this year, the device was approved for use in Europe.
The competing systems currently are restricted to patients deemed too ill or frail for open heart surgery. The survival of these patients, many of whom are in their 80s, often depends on obtaining a new valve to control blood flow to the aorta, the main artery in the body.
Analysts estimate that the worldwide market just to serve these patients could amount to billions of dollars. Moreover, some experts foresee a time when the developing technology could become the predominant way of replacing aortic valves.
"It's new but it's incredibly promising," said Dr. William O'Neill, medical director of the Center for Structural Heart Disease at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
O'Neill performed the first aortic valve replacement by catheter in the U.S. in 2005, and this month implanted the first Direct Flow valve in a U.S. patient involved in the new trial. He predicted that in a decade fewer aortic valves will be surgically replaced and that eventually "the vast majority are going to be done by these less-invasive techniques."
Direct Flow may seem a small player in this burgeoning market. The nine-year-old company has 130 employees in Santa Rosa and Lake Forest and has received $75 million in venture capital. Since it received European approval, its device has been implanted in just 130 patients there.
But its chief executive expressed confidence that what matters isn't company size but who has the most innovative product.
"Physicians want to provide their patients with the best outcomes," said Direct Flow President and CEO Bernie Lyons.
A key distinction that Lyons touts is the low rate of patients who suffer blood leakage from his company's valve. Such leakage, known as regurgitation, has been identified by physicians and analysts as a key concern in the replacement valve procedures because it appears linked to higher rates of patient deaths.
An estimated 350,000 elderly Americans suffer from severe aortic stenosis, said Jason Mills, a managing director in San Francisco with Canaccord Genuity investment bank. The diagnosis refers to a stiffening of the heart valve leaflets, reducing their ability to fully open and close.
The resulting restriction of blood flow to the aorta causes the heart to pump harder and can result in such symptoms as chest pains, fatigue and shortness of breath.
"Without treatment, half of the people feeling symptoms die within an average of two years," according to the Edwards Lifesciences website.
For many, relief comes by replacing the valve in open heart surgery -- deemed a proven and reliable procedure but also one that requires sawing open the chest and stopping the heart. In the last decade physicians have begun to experiment with less invasive techniques for those deemed too risky for surgery.
Direct Flow exists as part of a sizable group of Sonoma County medical device companies, including TriVascular and Medtronic's Santa Rosa-based vascular business. Lyons said the county ranks as the fourth-largest concentration of such businesses in the nation.