Days into a closely watched trial in federal court in Boston, the mammoth drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. settled a landmark lawsuit Wednesday with four sisters who said their breast cancer was caused by medication their mother took during pregnancy in the 1950s.
The settlement, for an undisclosed sum, was reached after the first witness in the case, a Harvard public health doctor, testified that the drug DES, which was promoted by Lilly as a way to prevent miscarriages had indeed been shown to cause cancer. It also came after a lawyer for the sisters argued that Lilly had failed to test the drug’s effect on fetuses before promoting it.
The case involving the Melnick sisters, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was believed to be the first involving the drug’s alleged ties to breast cancer to go to trial nationally. Many similar cases involving vaginal and cervical cancer have been settled across the country.
Children of women who took DES are said by medical specialists to be at an elevated risk for clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina and cervix, fertility problems, and breast cancer.
The Melnick sisters and their attorneys at Aaron M. Levine & Associates of Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In a statement, Eli Lilly said the settlement was the culmination of a mediation process that started before the trial began and that the financial terms are confidential.
“While we continue to believe that Lilly’s medication did not cause the conditions alleged in the lawsuit, we believe the settlement is in the best interest of the company,” the statement said. “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 settlement had a ripple effect across cancer-awareness groups who have tried to publicize the effects of DES, or diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen prescribed to millions of pregnant women between the late 1930s and early 1970s. Studies later showed the drug did not prevent miscarriages. The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of DES in pregnancy in 1971.
“DES daughters have always known it does cause cancer, especially breast cancer, and the science has caught up to the truth,” said Caitlin McCarthy, a DES educator and activist who is not involved in the lawsuit, but whose mother took the drug. McCarthy has campaigned for more awareness and wrote the screenplay for a film about DES titled “Wonder Drug,” which is in production.
Throughout her research, McCarthy said, the drug companies including Eli Lilly have failed to apologize.
With Wednesday’s settlement, after the trial had begun, she said: “They can’t dodge, weave, or flat out lie anymore, because this is something we know. . . . It’s become embarrassing for them to say this does not cause breast cancer.”
The case of the Melnick sisters was based on the assertion that the four of them developed breast cancer in their 40s and could not give birth.
But a fifth, older sister, has not developed breast cancer and was able to give birth; the sisters’ mother had not taken DES during the oldest sister’s pregnancy.
The sisters tied their cancer to DES after reading about growing research about the drug and cancer among the children of pregnant women who took the medication.