‘DES Daughters’ To Sue Drug Company Over Link Between Mother’s Pregnancy Drug And Breast Cancer

des daughters lawsuit

In what will be the first of several lawsuits, four sisters are suing the drug company Eli Lilly and Co., the former maker of for Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a pregnancy drug that was once prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage and premature birth. It was first taken off the market in the 1970s, after it was linked to a rare vaginal cancer, but has since been linked to many other reproductive health problems, including breast cancer. And now, so-called “DES daughters” are starting to head to federal court over the fallout.

The first case started today, with a case from Donna, Michele, Andrea and Francine Melnick–four sisters whose mother took DES at the time of their gestation, and who have all been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Their sister Mary Ann, who hasn’t developed breast cancer, was the only daughter for whom the mother didn’t take DES while pregnant. (Like many women, the mother was prescribed DES to boost estrogen levels during pregnancy, which was thought to protect against miscarriage and premature birth, but has since been proven not to be the case.)

For their defense, the drug company says the Melnicks have no proof that they’re even DES daughters; the mother and her doctor are both deceased, and they claim there are no medical records to confirm that she took the pregnancy drug. But there’s little doubt that the drug had dangerous side effects that weren’t disclosed to the women taking it; which the CDC says include the following:

  • Clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA), a rare kind of vaginal and cervical cancer (risk is highest for DES daughters in their teens and twenties, though it can impact older women, too)
  • Reproductive tract structural differences (for example, T-shaped uterus)
  • Pregnancy complications, such as ectopic (tubal) pregnancy and pre-term delivery
  • Infertility

Thousands of cases have been settled in the past over the drug’s link to cervical cancer, and now, the Melnicks are just four of 51 women who are taking over a dozen drug companies to federal court over the above side effects.

Do you think the drug companies should be held responsible in court? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

Photo: flickr user mbaylor

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    • Reed

      Yes, the drug companies are guilty!!!

      DES (diethylstilbestrol), a toxic and carcinogenic synthetic estrogen, is considered the world’s first drug disaster. It was prescribed to millions of pregnant women for decades: from 1938 until 1971 (and in a small number of cases for several years thereafter) in the United States; and until the mid-1980s in parts of Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the Third World. The currently proven effects of exposure include a rare vaginal cancer in DES Daughters; greater risk for breast cancer in DES Mothers; possible risk for testicular cancer in DES Sons; abnormal reproductive organs; infertility; high-risk pregnancies; and an increased risk for breast cancer in DES Daughters after age 40. There are a number of other suspected effects, including auto-immune disorders, but many of these effects are still awaiting further research.

      For decades, Big Pharma claimed DES prevented miscarriages and problem pregnancies. It was sometimes given as an injection, but primarily it was prescribed in pill form. Never patented, DES was marketed under 200 different names, although the majority of the drug was actually produced by Eli Lilly. DES was sometimes even included in prescription prenatal vitamins.

      As early as 1938, studies showed that DES promoted cancer in lab animals. But at that time, people thought animal studies only provided a hint of what could happen in humans. Also, no one knew that drugs could cross the placenta and affect a baby in utero. (Note there was a 1941 mouse study that showed mice with absent or deformed fallopian tubes. The warning signs were there for humans.)

      No controlled studies were ever conducted by the drug companies to determine the effectiveness or safety of DES for use during pregnancy, even after some scientists started questioning its efficacy in the 1950s. As early as 1953, research revealed that DES did not work – that DES actually brought about higher rates of premature birth and infant mortality – yet DES continued to be prescribed to pregnant women for decades. This is because pharmaceutical companies continued to heavily promote DES use to doctors. The drug was a top moneymaker for Big Pharma.

      In the late 1960s, there was an unprecedented appearance of rare cancer in young women. Clear cell cancer (CCA) – a rare cancer of the vagina – was diagnosed in an age group never before found to develop it. (Normally elderly women developed CCA.) There were eight such cases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston alone. One of the mothers raised the question of whether her daughter’s cancer might be connected to DES exposure in utero. Doctors discovered the DES link in 1971 and published their findings in the April 1971 issue of New England Journal of Medicine. News of the cancer cases made national headlines. However, the FDA did not act on this information until public pressure forced the FDA to contraindicate DES during pregnancy in November 1971. DES was never banned for human use.

      Researchers are now investigating whether DES health issues are extending into the next generation, the so-called DES Grandchildren. As study results come in, there is growing evidence that this group has been adversely impacted by a drug prescribed to their grandmothers.

      To this day, not one drug company has ever apologized or accepted responsibility for the DES tragedy. After repeated defeats in court, they have paid millions in out-of-court settlements and verdicts to DES Daughters and Sons who suffered injuries from their exposure.

    • Fran

      Guilty as charged! Early studies into DES showed it could cause cancer, especially in breast tissue. Was the drug shelved? Not by a long shot. Cheap and easy to produce, drug makers like Eli Lilly heavily promoted DES to doctors – who were urged to prescribe it to their pregnant patients. Money was made on each pill that was prescribed. Adding insult to injury, by 1953 a major research study was published showing that DES didn’t even work to prevent miscarriage! What did Lilly and other drug companies do when faced with incontrovertible evidence that DES didn’t work? They ramped up marketing of DES and told doctors to ignore that study. So many did that DES became the standard of care for problem pregnancies primarily in the ’50s and ’60s but lasting into the early ’70s. The tragedy is that DES Mothers, Daughters, Sons and now possibly DES Grandchildren were harmed by their exposure to this potent synthetic estrogen. Cancers and infertility plague those of us who were exposed. Drug companies must be held accountable for chasing the almighty dollar without concern for the well-being of those being prescribed their drugs!

    • maraki67

      just wondering if anyone knows if these women were tested for the BRCA1 gene, which in this case would make their cancer genetic…