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Jury Selection In Diet Drug Case

Mar 31, 1999 | AP

A woman who blames a popular diet drug combination for her heart trouble has gone to court to take on the world's seventh-largest drug maker in a closely watched case.

Opening statements were expected to begin later today in the lawsuit filed in state district court by Sandra Moore against American Home Products Corp., parent of pharmaceutical company Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories.

Jury selection continued this morning with about 50 people remaining in the pool. Prospective jurors were being questioned extensively about their knowledge of the drugs, said Ms. Moore's attorney, Michael McGartland.

"Only two people on the panel didn't know about fen-phen," he said.

Ms. Moore, who now lives in Missoula, Mont., claims she wasn't warned about the risks of taking fenfluramine, marketed by Wyeth-Ayerst as Pondimin, and dexfenfluramine, a similar drug later sold by the company as Redux.

The two drugs, which have been yanked from the market, make up half of the so-called "fen-phen" combination prescribed to thousands of patients to promote weight loss. The other half, phentermine, has not been linked to heart problems when taken alone and is still on the market.

Doctors found mild heart valve damage after Ms. Moore, 52, took fen-phen for 10 months in 1996. Now on medication for her condition, she seeks damages exceeding $10 million.

"She has congestive heart failure and heart valve disease as a result of taking the pills," McGartland said.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first to reach a courtroom over the issue of heart valve damage, and experts said a victory for her could prove key to other cases.

"Its going to encourage a lot of lawyers and clients that are right now sitting back and watching," said Dallas attorney Kip Petroff. "I know for a fact that (American Home Products) is banking on winning so it'll have the exact opposite effect."

The company has reportedly spent millions settling five cases involving primary pulmonary hypertension. Defense lawyer Bill Sims said he looks forward to putting the facts before the Texas jury.

"There's a lot of misinformation circulating about these drugs and why they were voluntarily withdrawn from the market," he said. "We are going to tell it like it is."

Fenfluramine carried labels starting in 1988 warning that in rare instances it causes primary pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal disorder.

Wyeth-Ayerst has been hit with hundreds of lawsuits since it pulled fenfluramine and Redux off the market in 1997 at the Food and Drug Administration's request.

A Mayo Clinic study linked the drugs to potentially fatal heart valve damage.

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