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Jury: Wyeth's PremPro caused cancer

Oct 4, 2006 | AP

A Philadelphia jury found Wednesday that Wyeth's PremPro hormone-therapy drug was a significant cause of breast cancer in a 66-year-old woman, and awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages.

The verdict in state court, reached on the sixth day of jury deliberations, was Wyeth's first loss in litigation involving about 5,000 lawsuits claiming PremPro and a related drug caused breast cancer and other diseases. Many of the suits were prompted by government studies showing a link between the drugs and increased risk for the diseases.

But Wyeth, Madison, N.J., soon will have a chance to reverse the damages in Wednesday's loss. A second phase of the trial is set to begin Oct. 12 in which the plaintiff, Jennie Nelson of Dayton, Ohio, will have to prove that Wyeth failed to adequately warn of PremPro's risks. If the jury finds in favor of Wyeth in the second phase, Nelson cannot collect any damages, including those awarded Wednesday, one of her lawyers said Wednesday.

If the jury finds against Wyeth in the second phase, however, it may then award additional, punitive damages.

The jury voted 7-1 that Nelson's ingestion of Wyeth's drugs was a "factual cause" of her breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2001 after taking PremPro since 1996 to treat menopausal symptoms. She had previously taken another Wyeth drug, Premarin, since 1995. The jury also voted 7-1 to award Nelson $1 million, plus $500,000 to her husband.

"We're happy and relieved we've gotten this far," one of Nelson's attorney, told reporters after the verdict. "But we're only halfway through the trial and we have work to do."

Another Nelson attorney, said the jury "carefully deliberated complex scientific issues and found this drug caused Mrs. Nelson's breast cancer."

The plantiff's attroneys said Nelson, who had both of her breasts removed and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat her cancer, wouldn't be available for comment until after the second phase of the trial is over.

Wyeth had argued during the trial that Nelson had other risk factors for breast cancer, such as a family history of cancer. Wyeth also argued that it's impossible to prove that individual cases of breast cancer were caused by its drugs.

"We're disappointed in the jury's decision," Wyeth spokesman Christopher Garland said. "We respectfully disagree there's any scientific basis to support the finding of a causal link between Wyeth's hormone therapies and the plaintiff's breast cancer. This is one case and one jury's verdict. It can in no way be used to extrapolate future results" in the litigation, he added.

Wyeth won the first PremPro trial last month in federal court in Little Rock, Ark. PremPro is a treatment for menopausal symptoms.

Garland said that during the second phase of the trial, Wyeth plans to show the company acted responsibly by performing studies of hormone therapy's risks and benefits. Wyeth also kept regulators, doctors and patients informed of these risks and benefits, Garland said.

Wednesday's verdict was reached just a few hours after the Pennsylvania judge in the case removed one juror and replaced him with an alternate. No reason was given for the action. The jury began deliberations Sept. 26 after a two-week trial.

Wyeth's drugs are still on the market, but publicity surrounding the government studies has caused Wyeth sales of Premarin-related products to drop to $909 million last year from $2.1 billion in 2001, the last full year before the key government studies began emerging.

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