Most people have never heard of Synthes, a medical device maker headquartered in West Chester, Pa. But the company became part of one of the most recognizable names in health care in June when Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) completed the purchase of it for nearly $20 billion -- the largest acquisition in J&J's history.
Market watchers cheered the deal, which will expand the company's stable of high-margin orthopedic products. J&J, which has endured a series of reputation-sullying recalls and lawsuits in recent years, specifically cited Synthes's "culture" and "values" as evidence of its appeal, even as former Synthes executives awaited sentencing on charges of grievous conduct.
In 2009 the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia accused the company of running illegal clinical trials -- essentially, experimenting on humans. Between 2002 and 2004, Synthes had tested a product called Norian XR, a cement that has a unique capacity to turn into bone when injected into the human skeleton.
The Food and Drug Administration explicitly told Synthes not to promote Norian for certain spine surgeries, but the company pushed forward anyway. At least five patients who had Norian injected into their spines died on the operating-room table. One was Barbara Marcelino.
The indictment of Synthes and its executives shook the health care industry. What occurred is a classic example of corporate malfeasance, but set inside an insular corporation run by a reclusive and autocratic Swiss multibillionaire, the provider of the largest individual gift in the history of Harvard University. The case offers a rare, sometimes disturbing, glimpse inside the shrouded world of medical devices, where surgeons occasionally turn for advice during operations to twentysomething sales representatives.