Zapping Laser Patents

TRUSTBUSTERS AT THE Federal Trade Commission have set their sights on two companies at the leading edge of surgical procedures for myopia. Visx of Santa Clara, Calif., and Summit Technology of Waltham, Mass., received subpoenas on Oct. 13 seeking information concerning a novel partnership that rivals say will stifle competition in this hot new market.

Visx and Summit have pooled their patents for a new surgical technique called photo-refractive keratectomy, which corrects vision by removing corneal tissue with lasers. Medical experts say this advancement over the currently popular radial keratotomy, which requires a scalpel to do the job, could involve a half million patients in the U.S. a year. At $2,000 a pop, that's big business.

The problem is a radical pricing plan set up by Pillar Point Partners, a joint venture between Visx and Summit. Created in 1992 to resolve the companies' patent disputes, Pillar would require licensees of its surgical methods to pay a $250 royalty per procedure. Since Summit got the Food & Drug Administration's O.K. on Oct. 20 to use its laser, it is poised to reap those royalties. Visx' approval is still pending.

Competitors charge that the scheme is an antitrust violation. "I've always thought it sounded like price-fixing," says Dr. Frank O'Donnell, chairman of LaserSight, which is based in St. Louis. Summit and Visx say they have obeyed the law. Now it's up to the FTC, which has no comment, to clear up whether Pillar's vision is anticompetitive.

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