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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 18946

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Feeley J, Adams J
Novartis Hid Risks to Protect Sales, Lawyer Says
Bloomberg News 2010 Nov 19

Full text:

Novartis AG officials hid the health risks of the drugmaker’s bone-strengthening medicines Aredia and Zometa to protect billions of dollars in sales, lawyers for a North Carolina woman said.

Executives of Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis ignored studies showing that some cancer patients taking Aredia and Zometa may suffer irreplaceable jawbone damage, Vernon Glenn, a lawyer for Rita Fussman’s family, told a federal court jury in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The drugs had $1.5 billion in sales in 2009.

Zometa and Aredia created a “giant money wheel” for Novartis, Glenn said in closing arguments of the trial of a lawsuit by Fussman’s family over damage done to her jaw. Novartis officials were prepared to do whatever it took to “keep the money wheel rolling,” the lawyer said.

The Fussman family’s lawsuit is the third product-liability case to go to trial over the bone-strengthening treatments. Last month, a New Jersey jury rejected a woman’s claims that Aredia and Zometa caused her jaw deterioration. In October 2009, a Montana jury ordered Novartis to pay $3.2 million in damages to a cancer patient who made the same claims over the medicines.

Bruce Berger, a Novartis lawyer, countered in his closing argument that the company provided adequate warnings about the risks the drugs posed to users. Fussman’s jaw problems were unrelated to her use of Zometa, he said. Fussman, who lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, died in 2009 of complications from breast cancer.

Side Effects

“Zometa wasn’t the problem,” Berger told jurors. “She took other drugs with all kinds of side effects.”

Novartis is facing about 700 suits over the bone- strengthening medicines, according to court filings. Some of the cases have been consolidated before a federal judge in Tennessee while others, like Fussman’s, have been sent back to their home courts for trial. Still other cases have been heard in state courts around the country.

Zometa and Aredia are bisphosphonate drugs that doctors prescribe to alleviate pain in bone-cancer patients. The drugs also help to strengthen bones to avoid fractures. Some patients contend a side effect of the drugs can cause users’ jawbones to deteriorate.

Fussman’s lawyers presented evidence in the case that Novartis officials were aware of studies dating back to the 1980s showing bisphosphonate drugs could damage users’ jaws. Fussman’s attorneys contend Novartis scientists ignored that research and pushed ahead with development of Aredia and Zometa.

‘Not Proper’

The lawyers also showed jurors an e-mail from a Novartis marketing executive suggesting that company officials should seek to persuade a researcher to withhold a case report showing he had uncovered multiple Zometa users suffering from jaw deterioration.

In his closing argument, Berger acknowledged that some of Novartis’s internal memos could be interpreted to show “some thinking that was not proper.” Still, the lawyer argued those documents weren’t enough to provide “a basis for liability.”

U.S. District Judge James Beaty in Winston-Salem sent jurors out to begin deliberations in the case late today. They will continue weighing the case tomorrow.

The case is Estate of Rita Fussman v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., 06-CV-000149, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Winston-Salem).


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