Mass. women assert pregnancy drug caused cancer

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BOSTON -- A lawyer charged Tuesday that Eli Lilly and Co. failed to test a drug's effect on fetuses before promoting it as a way to prevent miscarriages. The accusation came in opening statements in a trial over whether four sisters' breast cancer was caused by medication their mother took during pregnancy in the 1950s.

A lawyer for Eli Lilly told the jury there is no evidence the synthetic estrogen known as DES causes breast cancer in the daughters of women who took it. Also, no medical records show the mother of the four in the Boston case took DES, he said, or that, if she did, it was made by Eli Lilly. DES was not patented and many companies made it at the time.

The sisters' case is the first to go to trial of scores of similar claims filed in Boston and around the country. They are seeking unspecified damages. A total of 51 women have DES lawsuits pending in U.S. District Court, Boston, against more than a dozen companies that made or marketed the drug.

DES, or diethylstilbestrol, was prescribed to millions of pregnant women over three decades to prevent miscarriages, premature births and other problems. It was taken off the market in the early 1970s after it was linked to a rare vaginal cancer in women whose mothers had used DES. Later, studies showed the drug did not prevent miscarriages.

The Melnick sisters, who grew up in Tresckow, Pa., say they all developed breast cancer in their 40s and that their mother took DES while pregnant.

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Their lawyer, Aaron Levine, told the jury that the women's mother did not take DES while pregnant with a fifth sister, who has not developed breast cancer.

"What are the odds of that happening in nature, if DES wasn't the culprit?" he said.

Levine said Eli Lilly urged doctors to prescribe DES without proof that it was safe or that it prevented miscarriages and other reproductive problems. "You don't expose people to a risk unless there's a benefit, and there was no benefit," he said.

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