For over three decades, doctors prescribed DES, or diethylstilbestrol, to pregnant women for the prevention of miscarriages, premature births, and other problems. It was taken off the market in the 1970s after being linked to cancer, and fifty-one women have filed lawsuits in Boston against more than a dozen companies that made or marketed the synthetic estrogen. According to ABC News, the first case recently went to trial and a settlement was reached after the second day of testimony.
In the 1970s, DES was taken off the market after it was linked to a rare vaginal cancer in the mothers who used it. Studies later showed that the drug didn’t prevent miscarriages, and the companies that make DES argue that no firm link has been established between breast cancer and the drug. Many individuals who have filed lawsuits claim that companies like Eli Lilly failed to test the drug’s effect on fetuses before promoting it as a way to prevent miscarriages.
Four of the Melnick sisters filed a lawsuit against Eli Lilly and Co. alleging that they developed breast cancer after their mother took the drug during pregnancy in the 1950s. Their mother did not take the drug during the pregnancy of the fifth and youngest sister, and she has not developed breast cancer. Aaron Levine, the Melnick sisters’ attorney, questioned “what are the odds of that happening in nature if DES wasn’t the culprit?”
However, James Dillon, the lawyer for Eli Lilly, told the jury that there are no records of the Melnick mother’s doctor prescribing DES for her. Since numerous companies made the drug at the time, Dillon argues that there is no proof that the DES their mother took was made by Eli Lilly.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a study published in 2002 found that DES daughters over age 40 are 2.5 more times likely to develop breast cancer compared to women over 40 who were not exposed to DES. A 2006 study found that daughters of women who took DES face a 90 percent increased risk of cancer after age 40, and a 200 percent increased risk after age 50.
In addition to developing breast cancer, the four Melnick sisters also had miscarriages, fertility problems and other reproductive tract problems long suspected of being caused by prenatal exposure to DES. The settlement in the Melnick’s case could signal settlements in other cases. Irene Sawyer, a Columbus resident who is also suing Eli Lilly, called the settlement a huge victory as Eli Lilly is held responsible for their actions: “The bottom line is that this company put out a drug without testing, without knowing the consequences of this drug.”