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First Prempro suit goes to trial in Ark.

Aug 20, 2006 | AP

Jury selection will begin Monday in federal court in the first trial of 4,500 lawsuits filed nationwide that challenge Prempro, a hormone-replacement therapy that some women say causes breast cancer.

Linda Reeves of Benton filed the suit against drug maker Wyeth, and argued that she developed breast cancer after taking Prempro for eight years. Another Little Rock woman, Helene Rush, has argued similar claims in a federal suit against the drug maker. Rush has an Oct. 10 court date for her case.

Prempro is a widely prescribed estrogen-progestin combination used to treat premenopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes.

A Women's Health Initiative study found that women who took Prempro had a higher risk of breast cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease.

Wyeth recently reached more than $21 billion in settlements for lawsuits over another drug combination, fen-phen, which was prescribed as a diet drug. Analysts have said they don't think Wyeth's hormone-replacement therapy settlements will be nearly as high as the fen-phen cases.

Tom Eaton, a law professor at the University of Georgia, compared the trial to the opening round of a boxing match where both sides will learn what evidence works and what doesn't in the lawsuits.

Eaton said he expects the trial will include a battle over internal marketing documents that Reeves' attorney claims show Wyeth put profits ahead of patients. The documents could be a key to Reeves' lawsuit, Eaton said.

"Juries may not understand the complexities of biochemistry, but they sure understand a coverup," Eaton said.

Reeves' lawyers say there's evidence that Wyeth willfully ignored the dangers of hormone-replacement therapy, including a higher risk for breast cancer. During the trial, sales representatives are expected to testify that they were told to minimize the drugs' risks.

U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr. has issued a gag order preventing laywers on both sides from talking to reporters about the case.

Wyeth says it didn't willfully ignore the dangers, and that the hormone-replacement therapy's label warned of breast cancer risk.

Heidi Hubbard, a lawyer for Wyeth, has said the company's hormone-replacement therapy is "an incredibly valuable treatment."

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