BOSTON (CBS/AP) — Four sisters who claimed in a lawsuit their breast cancer was caused by synthetic estrogen their mother took during pregnancy in the 1950s have reached a settlement with the drug company Eli Lilly and Co., a lawyer for the sisters said Wednesday.
Attorney Julie Oliver-Zhang said the settlement, for an undisclosed amount, was reached on the second day of a trial in U.S. District Court in Boston. They had not specified damages sought in the lawsuit.
An advocate for DES daughters, Caitlin McCarthy, explained what happened to WBZ-TV Wednesday.
“During a break, Lilly approached the plaintiffs and wanted to settle right away. It was the Mike Tyson punch, total knockout. I think this sends a signal to everybody with pending DES drug cases that Eli Lilly and the other drug companies know. The word is out.”
Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly released a statement after the settlement was reached saying:
While we continue to believe that Lilly’s medication did not cause the conditions alleged in this lawsuit, we believe the settlement is in the best interest of the Company. Settling this trial helps us get back to what we want to focus on as a company; developing important new medications through research and partnerships with doctors and patients.
The sisters’ case was the first to go to trial out of scores of similar claims filed in Boston and around the country. A total of 51 women have lawsuits pending in U.S. District Court in 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 used DES.
Studies later showed the drug did not prevent miscarriages.
In his opening trial statement Tuesday, Aaron Levine, another lawyer for the sisters, said Eli Lilly failed to test the drug’s effect on fetuses before promoting it as a way to prevent miscarriages.
James Dillon, a lawyer for Eli Lilly, told the jury there is no evidence the drug causes breast cancer in the daughters of women who took it. He also said no medical records show the mother of the four women in the Boston case took DES, or that if she did take it, that it was made by Eli Lilly.
DES was not patented and was made by many companies.
The Melnick sisters, who grew up in Tresckow, Pa., say they all developed breast cancer in their 40s after their mother took DES while pregnant.
Levine told the jury that their mother did not take DES while pregnant with a fifth sister, and that sister has not developed breast cancer.
The four Melnick sisters also had miscarriages, fertility problems or other reproductive tract problems long suspected of being caused by prenatal exposure to DES. They were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1997 and 2003 and had treatments ranging from lump-removal surgery to a full mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.
Dillon said that the doctor who treated the Melnick sisters’ mother is now dead, and that there are no records of him prescribing DES. Dillon said Eli Lilly at the time recommended DES for women who had had three or more consecutive miscarriages.
The sisters’ mother, he said, did not have consecutive miscarriages, so prescribing it to her would have gone against the company’s recommendations. Dillon said leading researchers at the time recommended that DES be used for pregnant women.
Dillon told the jury that while it is “terribly unfair” that the four sisters got breast cancer, it is a common disease and doctors still don’t understand what causes it.
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed alleging links between DES and vaginal and cervical cancer, as well as fertility problems. Many of those cases were settled.
WBZ-TV’s Jim Armstrong reports
One of the other lawsuits pending against Eli Lilly belongs to Irene Sawyer. The Ohio resident flew to Boston this week at her own expense, just to watch the trial unfold in person.
“The DES daughters, we feel so connected,” she says. Sawyer did not know the other women living with the after-effects of the drug until meeting them in court.
“I was there to support them; I’m also a DES daughter,” Sawyer says.
Her mother took DES in 1954, thinking it would protect her from miscarriage.
When Sawyer was 20, doctors found a massive tumor on her fallopian tubes; she then learned she would never be able to bear children. Sawyer says even then, in 1975, doctors could tell with an internal examination that twenty years earlier, her mother had taken DES.
Then at 56, Sawyer was diagnosed with breast cancer. That required eighteen months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and total reconstructive surgery. Now 58, Sawyer traces it all back to DES.
“I constantly live with the fear of what’s next. What am I going to get next? What’s down the road?”
With all she’s endured, and has yet to endure, coming to Boston was hugely important.
“I knew this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to finally hear somebody take some responsibility for what we live with every day,” she explains.
In court today, Sawyer says she couldn’t believe how quickly and surprisingly everything came to an end.
“We were thrilled; there were tears in peoples’ eyes, hugs all around, we were finally validated,” she says. “Lilly did not come out and say they did it, but they settled. And this to me is a clear statement that they know something happened to us.”
WBZ-TV’s Jim Armstrong, Christina Hager and Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press contributed to this report.