$12.6M Awarded in Drug Case – Bone Drug Caused Woman’s Jaw to Disintegrate

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A Mount Pleasant lawyer won $12.6 million in damages for the estate of a North Carolina woman whose jaws disintegrated while taking a bone-strengthening drug - a side effect its manufacturer hid from consumers to protect sales, a jury ruled in federal court Monday. At least two similar cases involving the drugs Aredia and Zometa, manufactured by Switzerland-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis, are expected to be tried in South Carolina by the end of next year, attorney Vernon Glenn said. Clients from the Upstate and Midlands who have taken the drug also have suffered broken jawbones, he said. Hundreds of similar cases have been filed nationwide, he said. The North Carolina trial, which began Nov. 1, was the third recent case involving jawbone problems for cancer patients who had taken the top-selling drugs from Novartis. The first, in Montana, resulted in a $3.2 million award for the patient, Glenn said. Novartis won the second case in New Jersey, he said.

Attorneys for Novartis, who could not be reached for comment, are expected to appeal Monday's ruling. Zometa, a more potent form of its predecessor, Aredia, is given to some patients to help prevent cancer from spreading to the bones and has been available since 2001, Glenn said. The North Carolina patient, Rita Fussman, who died in 2009 of complications from breast cancer, began taking Zometa in 2001. Fussman had a tooth extraction while taking the drug; her jawbones began to fall apart after that, Glenn said. "Her mouth caved in," Glenn said. "No one could figure out what was going on." Fussman's oncologist at Duke said during the trial he was unaware of any side effects involving possible jaw deterioration. In 2005, Novartis began to send letters to doctors saying the drugs could cause jaw problems. But Glenn said the pharmaceutical company was aware of the connection well before that, possibly since the 1980s. Problems can arise when patients get dental work that exposes jawbones while taking the drug, allowing acid to cause deterioration, Glenn said. "If she'd been given full disclosure, she could've declined to take the drug or she could've had the dental work done before starting the drug," he said Glenn called Novartis' failure to disclose the connection a "corporate cover-up" intended to protect sales of the drugs, which topped $1.5 billion in 2009. Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550. Copyright, 2010, The Post and Courier. All Rights Reserved.

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