A postal worker who sued Merck & Co. Inc., blaming its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx for his heart attack, had several pre-existing risk factors like age and cholesterol levels that could have led to the attack, a lawyer for the company said on Friday.

Merck attorney Diane Sullivan, in her cross-examination of a cardiologist who testified on behalf of plaintiff Frederick Humeston, presented data from the American Medical Association showing that about 20 percent to 25 percent of all heart attacks each year occur in men of Humeston’s age group.

Humeston, 60, suffered a non-fatal heart attack in September 2001. He is suing Merck in New Jersey Superior Court in Atlantic City, charging that Merck hid the risks of its popular painkiller in an effort to preserve its blockbuster sales.

Merck has said it pulled the arthritis drug from the market last September as soon as it had definitive evidence that long-term use doubled heart attack and stroke risks.

“There are people younger than Mr. Humeston who have had heart attacks” with fewer risk factors, Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, heart attacks are common.”

The former Marine took Vioxx for about two months to treat a knee wound suffered during the Vietnam War.

Testimony in the trial was monitored on Friday via an Internet feed provided by cable channel Court TV.

In court on Friday, Sullivan asked Dr. Nicholas DePace, a cardiologist from the Philadelphia area, about his prior testimony discussing Humeston’s risk levels for heart attack. A day earlier, DePace had testified that Vioxx likely was a risk factor for heart attack, even if taken only for a short time.

Sullivan said a risk assessment tool called the Framingham Risk Score, which took into account things like Humeston’s age, weight and cholesterol level, estimated that he had had a one in 10 chance of suffering a heart attack.

De Pace told Sullivan that Humeston’s risk level was in fact 10 percent over a 10-year period—or about a 1 percent chance per year.

“I think that is pretty low (odds) – 1 percent a year,” he said.

On Thursday, Dr. David Sim, an Idaho cardiologist who has treated Humeston since his heart attack, testified that he was able to eliminate many of the most common high risk factors for causing a heart attack.

Asked if there were any potential medication-related reasons that might have caused the heart attack, Sim testified, “The drug that was potentially relevant for Mr. Humeston was Vioxx.”

This is the second civil trial since the withdrawal of Vioxx, and follows an August jury verdict in Texas state court that held Merck responsible for a Vioxx user’s death. Merck is appealing that case.



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