Health: Did Wyeth Give This Woman Cancer?

Wyeth — the maker of Prempro, a hormone replacement drug linked to breast cancer — had warnings on its labels. But its campaign to sell the drug may have sent a different message

The future of Prempro, in contrast, seems pretty stable, no matter what the juries decide. Doctors in some 85 countries continue to prescribe it for hot flashes. “Most women aren’t looking at hot flashes forever,” says Edith Mitchell, a medical oncologist at Jefferson. “I think that short periods of hormones in patients, just to relieve symptoms, are okay.” Hers is a common opinion in a post-WHI world; last year, Prempro made $1.1 billion.

And now, to determine whether Wyeth did know about — or could have known about — the drug’s risks to women like Joy Henry is to sort through the quagmire of science and marketing and clinical researchers who really do want to help people, and that is the job of juries. Thus far, 23 out of 31 cases set for trial have been resolved favorably for Wyeth; the company has settled five, and several are on appeal. Little is certain.

Except this: The Philadelphia judge who basically invented mass tort pharmaceutical litigation — Sandra Mazer Moss — has made it her court’s mission to get through this docket and hear all 1,500 Philly-based trials. There might even be cases tried in groups. “The plaintiffs are due their day in court,” Moss says. “And so are the defendants. That is justice. Even one-tenth of a courtroom in your lifetime is better than nothing because you’re dead.”

If you were on the jury, you’d likely hear that Moss — who came to this court’s bench in January — arrived too late for the 205 women who died still waiting for their cases to come to trial. If you were on the jury, you’d hear that WHI’s lead researcher thinks 200,000 women who got breast cancer in the past decade have long-term hormone therapy to thank for it. If you were on the jury, you’d hear that Wyeth did everything a responsible drug company can possibly do in getting out a drug whose benefits still outweigh its risks.

Of course, if you’re not on the jury, you might never hear any of that. You might just be a patient.