Medtronic Inc. knew that its Sprint Fidelis Defibrillator Leads were fracturing at higher-than-usual rates for months. Yet, the company appears to have dragged its feet in getting the defective Sprint Fidelis Lead off the market.
Medtronic even went so far as to blame physicians for the problems, claiming that they weren't implanting the defective Sprint Fidelis Lead properly. What's even worse, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which never required the defective medical device to undergo clinical testing, was oblivious to the increasing reports of Sprint Fidelis Lead problems.
Medtronic suspended sales of the Sprint Fidelis Leads in October, after receiving reports of 5 fatalities linked to lead fractures. A lead is a wire that connects an implantable defibrillator to the heart. When it breaks, the defibrillator can emit a massive and painful shock. And in the worse case scenario, the fractured lead can prevent a defibrillator from sending a necessary, lifesaving shock to the heart.
Replacing a lead is not an easy procedure, as the invasive surgery can cause the tissue of the blood vessels and heart to tear. In fact, replacing a defibrillator lead is so risky that patients with Sprint Fidelis Leads are being told to leave the defective components in place unless they fracture.
The Sprint Fidelis Lead was designed to replace Medtronic's Sprint Quattro models, and it is one of the thinnest defibrillator lead wires on the market. Since it was put on the market in 2004, Sprint Fidelis Leads have been implanted with 90% of Medtronic's defibrillators.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 268,000 defective Sprint Fidelis Leads have been implanted worldwide, and about 235,000 people still have these leads in their chests. But in spite of such widespread use, the FDA never required the Sprint Fidelis Leads to be tested in humans before they were marketed, and it did not monitor the device after it was introduced. The FDA considered the Sprint Fidelis Lead to be a modification over the earlier Sprint Quattro, so it only required Medtronic to conduct limited laboratory testing prior to its introduction.
Within a couple of years of the Sprint Fidelis Lead's introduction, emergency rooms around the country began to see patients injured by the fractured device. The problems were disturbing enough that the Minneapolis Heart Institute decided to conduct a data analysis of Sprint Fidelis Lead fracture reports from hospital databases around the country.
The researchers found that the thinner Sprint Fidelis lead had a higher chance of fracturing than the Sprint Quattro. As a result of those findings, the Minneapolis Heart Institute quit using the Sprint Fidelis lead, and the study authors informed the FDA that the defective Sprint Fidelis Lead was "significantly less reliable" than its predecessor. While Medtronic did write a letter to doctors in March 2007 warning them of the Sprint Fidelis lead's possible problems, the company maintained that the fractures were partly the result of the components not being properly implanted.
Despite being informed of the Minneapolis Heart Institute's Sprint Fidelis Lead study, the FDA did nothing. Medtronic had concluded that the number of Sprint Fidelis Lead fractures were not "statistically significant" and blamed most of them on surgical errors.
An FDA spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the agency did not require any post-market surveillance of the Sprint Fidelis Lead because "no issues were raised in the premarket review that suggested the need for a post market study." But of course, the FDA had not required a premarket clinical trial of the Sprint Fidelis Lead. Because of this, patients and their doctors had no way of knowing that the Sprint Fidelis Lead implanted with a Medtronic defibrillator could be a dangerous ticking time bomb.
But Medtronic knew. It had started a study of the Sprint Fidelis Lead even before it went on the market. According to the Wall Street Journal, that study revealed that from late 2004 through February 2007, there had been more than 200 fractures reported for Sprint Fidelis Leads. That was compared to 64 for Medtronic's other defibrillator leads. But sources have told the Wall Street Journal that at a July 19 internal meeting to discuss the problem, Medtronic's management still insisted that the number of Sprint Fidelis Lead fractures was not "statistically significant".
Then, sometime between August and September of this year, Medtronic said it learned of 5 deaths linked to Sprint Fidelis Lead fractures. And by October, the Medtronic analysis had revealed that the defective Sprint Fidelis Leads had a 2.3% fracture rate within 30 months of implantation.
Finally, unable to deny that such numbers were not "statistically significant," Medtronic recalled its defective Sprint Fidelis Leads. But thousand of people have been implanted with these leads, and now they must live with the knowledge that their Sprint Fidelis Lead could fracture at any time, placing them in mortal danger. Why the defective Sprint Fidelis lead was not removed from the market earlier, is a question that Medtronic is going to have to answer.