Merck scientist says profits did not trump safety
ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey – A Merck & Co. Inc. scientist on Tuesday vehemently denied a Vietnam War veteran’s claims the company put profits ahead of safety in marketing its popular pain killer Vioxx.
“I chose a career in research to try to save human life,” Alise Reicin, vice president of clinical research at Merck Research Laboratories, testified in the second Vioxx civil case to go to trial.
“To suggest that I would put profit before human safety is really completely outrageous.”
In marked contrast to the heated exchanges between the judge and a lawyer for the drug maker that roiled the courtroom on Friday, Merck attorney Stephen Raber calmly questioned Reicin about the development of the drug.
Vioxx went on the market in 1999, but was pulled last year after studies showed increased heart risk after long-term use. The company faces about 5,000 Vioxx lawsuits.
Merck began presenting its defense in the trial last week, after lawyers for plaintiff Frederick Humeston rested their case. Humeston, an Idaho postal worker, briefly took Vioxx to treat an old Vietnam War wound and blames the drug for his 2001 heart attack. Merck says other factors, such as his age and weight, likely triggered the attack.
On Friday, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee threw out the testimony of Merck’s first witness, prompting an unusual shouting match in the Atlantic City courtroom between the judge and Merck lawyer Diane Sullivan.
In her testimony on Tuesday, Reicin said “nothing could be further from the truth” in regard to accusations the drug maker hid the safety risks of Vioxx for years to preserve its blockbuster sales.
Her comments came as she was asked about a February 1997 e-mail she wrote to other Merck researchers expressing concern about how tests on Vioxx would be perceived. In the e-mail, she said she was worried tests of Vioxx compared with other pain killers would be misinterpreted as showing Vioxx carried a higher risk of heart attacks.
Reicin told jurors that tests conducted on Vioxx before the company sought approval of the drug showed no evidence of increased heart risk.
She said that a total of 60 studies, covering about 10,000 patients, were conducted on the drug before it was submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval in November 1998. The jury was shown the results of tests in which patients with osteoarthritis were treated with Vioxx and other drugs.
“There was not any data in the osteoarthritis study to suggest that there would be increased risk,” Reicin testified.
A comparison of those patients who suffered heart attacks showed a rate of 0.27 percent for those taking Vioxx and 0.26 percent for those taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, according to the study data presented to jurors.
Other tests showed that heart attacks were suffered by 0.13 percent of Vioxx users, less than half of the 0.28 percent rate experienced by patients taking a placebo, or dummy pill, according to the research displayed to the jury.
The trial began in mid-September and is expected to last several more weeks. In the first Vioxx trial, a Texas jury in August awarded the widow of a Vioxx user $253 million — but that amount is expected to be sharply reduced. Merck is appealing the case.