Four sisters are about to get their day in federal court in Boston against Eli Lilly & Co., a former manufacturer of diethylstilbestrol (DES) after the drug allegedly caused them to later develop breast cancer. This is the first DES lawsuit of many to go to trial and jury selection is scheduled to start today. There are still about 50 DES lawsuits pending in Boston against over 12 drug makers after a federal judge was unable to come up with settlements for them.
The siblings, Michele, Donna, Francine, and Andrea, have also each had fertility issues, miscarriages, or reproductive tract issues that have long been believed to be linked to prenatal DES exposure. It wasn’t until 2008, however, that one of them found out about a study that identified a higher incidence of breast cancer in the daughters of women who took the drug while pregnant. Their older sister, Mary Ann, is the only one that they say was not exposed to DES while in their mother’s womb, and she is the only one of the five sisters who hasn’t had breast cancer or fertility problems.
It was in 1971 that the Food and Drug Administration advised doctors to cease prescribing DES to pregnant women. The advisory was issued after a study reported an increase in the risk of these women’s daughters later developing a rare vaginal cancer. Thousands of DES lawsuits have since been filed over allegedly related incidents of cervical cancer, fertility issues, and vaginal cancer. Many of them have been settled.
The four Melnick sisters have all had to undergo different treatments, ranging from surgery to having a lump removed to chemotherapy, a full mastectomy, and radiation. They contend that Eli Lilly failed to provide any warnings that taking DES could injure the babies. They believe that the drug was never properly tested before it was put into the marketplace.
Meantime, Eli Lilly, in court documents, is claiming that there isn’t any evidence, even medical records, showing that the Melnick sisters’ mom, Frances Melnick, even took DES. Frances and her physician are both deceased.
Originally manufactured in 1938, DES was the first synthetic estrogen to enter the market. For decades it was prescribed to pregnant women to supposedly create a healthy pregnancy and prevent premature birth and miscarriage. Even after published research eventually showed that DES didn’t prevent premature births or miscarriages it would be almost two decades before the FDA advisory came out.
A recent 2011 suggests that DES daughters over age 40 are almost twice as likely to develop breast cancer than other women. Other findings have also shown a link between DES impacting an infant’s development, including its immune, reproductive, and skeletal systems.
Trial Set to Begin in Boston Over Pregnancy Drug, ABC News/AP, January 4, 2012
4 Sisters Who Had Breast Cancer Sue Drug Maker, Blaming Mother’s Medication, CBS Boston, January 3, 2012
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