Doctor: Merck had warning signs about Vioxx problems

Repeated evidence and warning signs linked heart risks to the painkiller Vioxx before and shortly after its launch, a prominent expert on the heart and the effects of drugs testified Monday on behalf of an Idaho man who blames the painkiller for his heart attack.

Dr. Benedict Lucchesi, a professor at the University of Michigan who helped develop the first pacemaker, reviewed correspondence among Merck & Co. executives and scientists and said he was surprised the company didn't put more emphasis on those risks.

The documents presented by plaintiff's lawyer Chris Seeger indicate Vioxx was causing heart attacks by blocking a body's production of a key substance that prevents blood clots. That would limit the number of patients for whom Vioxx was appropriate, Lucchesi testified.

"This is bad news, obviously," he said, adding he didn't know how any scientists "could not know the potential for harm."

Lucchesi also testified that after a 2000 study showed significant heart risks to Vioxx users, Merck told doctors and the public that Vioxx was safe. Lucchesi said that instead there was "an explosion" of reports by Merck executives and consultants saying that the other drug in that study, Naproxen, prevented heart attacks, not that Vioxx caused them.

Vioxx, launched in May 1999, was pulled from the market in September 2004 by Merck after its own research showed the blockbuster arthritis drug doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months' use.

Frederick "Mike" Humeston, a 60-year-old Idaho postal worker who had a heart attack in 2001, is the second person to have a lawsuit over Vioxx reach court.

Merck faces more than 5,000 lawsuits filed in state and federal courts in the United States by former Vioxx users alleging the medicine harmed them.

Other lawsuits have been filed in Canada, Europe, Brazil, Australia and Israel.

The first trial ended last month when the jury in the Texas case stunned Merck with a $253 million (Ђ208 million) liability verdict although that will be slashed to about $26 million (Ђ21.4 million) because Texas caps punitive damages. Merck plans to appeal. Lucchesi also testified against Merck in that trial.

Lucchesi said Monday that he felt funny testifying against Merck after having a positive relationship with its scientists for years; the company even helped pay for training of some of his graduate students.

"Merck has been extremely good to me over the years," Lucchesi said.

Lucchesi's testimony was continuing Monday afternoon and he faced cross examination by Merck attorneys, AP reported.

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