Four sisters are suing a former maker of diethylstilbestrol (DES), the banned drug their mother took while pregnant, claiming it resulted in them each having fertility issues and developing breast cancer.
The case, which will commence jury selection on Friday 4 January, is the first of scores – 51 are currently pending against several different drug companies – that are expected to come to court in the US.
The four sisters, whose surname is Melnick, are suing Eli Lilly and Co for unspecified damages claiming that their mother took DES in the 1950s while pregnant with each of them, which they believe resulted in them each experiencing fertility problems and developing breast cancer in adult life.
Their eldest sister, who has not had reproductive problems or breast cancer, was not exposed to DES during pregnancy as their mother had stopped taking it.
DES is synthetic estrogen that was prescribed to millions of women from the 1930s to the early 1970s to prevent miscarriages and premature birth. However, it was eventually withdrawn from public use in 1971 after it was shown to cause a rare vaginal tumor.
In 2008, one of the sisters made the link between the drug and breast cancer diagnosis after reading a study that reported an increased incidence of breast cancer in women born to mothers who took DES while pregnant.
Aaron Levine, a lawyer for the Melnick sisters and the other women who have sued in Boston, told The Associated Press; "This is a drug that was never adequately tested and never adequately warned.
"There were no warnings at all, except in their literature they warned that it could be carcinogenic to the mother, but they never warned about the babies."
The Melnick sisters’ lawyers, as part of their case against Eli Lilly, are citing a 2011 study that suggests the risk of breast cancer is nearly double in DES daughters over 40.
Since the drug was banned in the early 1970s, thousands of lawsuits have been filed alleging a link between DES and vaginal and cervical cancer, as well as fertility problems.
During DES’s heyday Eli Lilly dominated its market; however they deny that in this particular case there is a link. The company argues that there is no evidence that the Melnick sister’s mother even took DES. Their mother and her doctor are both deceased.
"We believe these claims are without merit and are prepared to defend against them vigorously," Eli Lilly spokesman, J Scott MacGregor, told The Associated Press.
Image: Eli Lilly’s headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, US. Photo: Courtesy of Eli Lilly Co.