A prominent researcher who has studied blood clots and heart problems, Benedict Lucchesi was supposed to provide the scientific underpinning to the case against Merck in New Jersey’s first Vioxx trial.
Instead, he brought an unexpected jolt of emotion to the Atlantic City courtroom yesterday, choking up on the witness stand and declaring he was “enraged” at decisions the company’s scientists made regarding studies of the drug’s safety.
“They’re putting profit before life,” he said, after taking a moment to compose himself.
A pharmacology professor at the University of Michigan, Lucchesi spent much of the morning explaining how blood clots form and how they can contribute to heart attacks. The plaintiff in the case, Frederick “Mike” Humeston, suffered a debilitating heart attack four years ago while taking the painkiller Vioxx.
Although his task was to explain complex medical terms, Lucchesi was often whimsical in his responses. He warned jurors not to smoke, and confided that he no longer eats steak. Asked if he knew one of Merck’s scientific advisers well, he said: “Yes, he has a nice mustache.”
So it was a surprise near the end of the day when he lashed out at Merck’s scientists for not getting to the bottom of Vioxx’s potential cardiovascular risks despite ample warnings.
“I know these people. I trained some of these people,” he said. “They have to live with this. They have no power to change their decision.”
Lucchesi was a key figure in the nation’s first Vioxx trial in Texas, which ended last month with a $253.4 million jury verdict against Merck. In that case, the professor testified Vioxx likely triggered the arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, that killed Robert Ernst. Last year, Merck pulled the popular painkiller off the market for safety reasons.
Merck plans to appeal the Ernst verdict, and has derided some of the testimony in that case as “junk science.” In motions in the Humeston case, the company also has tried to ensure Lucchesi and other medical experts do not stray beyond their fields of expertise.
Lucchesi’s moment of drama came while Humeston’s attorney, Chris Seeger, was questioning him about a Feb. 25, 1997, e-mail from Merck scientist Briggs Montgomery. Writing to other company scientists working on Vioxx, Montgomery argued people on a low- dose aspirin regimen should not be excluded from the drug’s clinical trials, which are designed to show if a medicine is effective and safe before it is approved for sale. Aspirin can reduce the risk of heart attack, but also causes stomach distress. Both attributes could conceivably skew study results since Vioxx’s calling card was that it caused less gastrointestinal problems than other drugs in its class.
Lucchesi apparently took Montgomery’s e-mail as confirmation the company was aware of an elevated risk of heart attacks and strokes from Vioxx a year before the drug was approved by federal regulators.
Merck will not have an opportunity to cross-examine the professor until Monday. But outside the courtroom, company attorney James Fitzpatrick said Lucchesi is “completely misinterpreting” the e- mail. Montgomery has been attending the trial, and will be called as a witness when Merck mounts its own case, he said.
“We do intend to have him rebut that testimony,” Fitzpatrick said.