Behind the menopausal hormone curtain

While court cases are exceedingly unpleasant, they do have their uses. In this case, a suit against Wyeth brought to public attention a whole series of internal documents that provide insights into the marketing strategies of female hormones.

This New York Times article 12-12-09 written by Singer and Wilson provides an overview:

…The documents that have surfaced in the Wyeth cases offer a rare glimpse inside the file cabinets and hard drives of a major drug company. And the cases demonstrate the importance of litigation in detailing exactly how drug makers operate their businesses, says Dr. Jerome L. Avorn, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has written about the subject in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The information coming out in litigation helps us understand how a belief in a ‘protective benefit’ of estrogens on the heart was able to spread like wildfire through the medical community,” says Dr. Avorn, who is not involved in the Wyeth litigation.

“Thousands of doctors prescribed the drugs for millions of women on that basis,” he says, adding that studies later contradicted the belief. “It will be very interesting to see whether the courts are able to connect the dots and make it clear whether this was a kind of medical ventriloquism on Wyeth’s part.”

PREMPRO is a combination of Premarin, an estrogen drug derived from the urine of pregnant mares and first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1942, with an additional hormone, progestin.

Part of the Premarin saga shows how a drug maker successfully and cannily expanded a franchise whose central ingredient is horse estrogens into a billion-dollar panacea for aging women. Yet several hundred pages of court documents also raise questions about another aspect of Premarin’s trajectory: how Wyeth worked over decades to maintain the image and credibility of its hormone drugs even as the products were repeatedly under siege.

Pfizer representatives say court documents paint an unfair picture of Wyeth’s practices and that plaintiffs’ lawyers have cherry-picked documents for out-of-context comments to sway juries.

Still, the documents offer a snapshot of Wyeth’s efforts. Taken together, they depict a company that over several decades spent tens of millions of dollars on influential physicians, professional medical societies, scientific publications, courses and celebrity ads, inundating doctors and patients with a sea of positive preventive health messages that plaintiffs’ lawyers say deflected users’ attention from cancer concerns.

Even as evidence mounted of an association of the drugs with cancer — first in the 1970s with Premarin and endometrial cancer, then in the 1990s with Prempro and breast cancer — Wyeth tried to contain the concerns, the court documents show. (A note handwritten in 1996 by a Wyeth employee responding to a new report of breast cancer risks associated with hormone therapy said: “Dismiss/distract.”)…

much more via New York Times

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