By John M. Biers of Dow Jones Newswires

HOUSTON (Dow Jones) — The first federal trial on the risks of Merck & Co.’s (MRK) Vioxx edged toward jury deliberations Thursday morning, with closing arguments from the two sides.

Plaintiff attorneys and Merck counsel offered radically opposing characterizations of the pharmaceutical giant’s conduct regarding Vioxx, a painkiller that was removed from the market in September 2004 because of concerns that it causes heart attacks. Judge Eldon Fallon will deliver jury instructions at 1:30 p.m. Central time after a lunch break.

The case concerns Richard “Dicky” Irvin, 53 years old, who died in 2001 after taking Vioxx for back pain for a month. The case hinges on whether the nine-member jury accepts the plaintiff’s arguments that Merck’s shepherding of Vioxx was negligent, and that Vioxx contributed to Irvin’s death.

Plaintiff counsel Andy Birchfield emphasized the testimony of a renowned cardiologist, Eric Topol, who said Vioxx can cause heart attacks after as little as four weeks and suggested that Merck tried to intimidate him into not publishing research critical of Merck. Birchfield also pointed out written comments by the Food and Drug Administration criticizing Merck for misleading the public in downplaying the risks of Vioxx.

“You can make a difference where the FDA couldn’t stand up to Merck,” Birchfiled told the jury. “Your decision will have far-reaching consequences on how drug companies conduct their business.”

To side with Irvin, the jury must conclude that Vioxx was “a cause, not the cause’ of death, Birchfield said.

Merck counsel Phillip Beck defended Merck as a “science-driven company” that has been forthcoming and proactive in researching its medicines and publicizing those results, The drug giant has argued that its decision with Vioxx reflected a multitude of research and that a preponderance found the medicine to be safe.

Beck depicted Topol as self-important and “the kind of guy who doesn’t like to be contradicted and has an ax to grind.’

Merck argues that there is no evidence that Vioxx can cause heart trouble after such a short period of use, and reiterated expert testimony that Irvin’s death was cause by a ruptured artery and that he had heart disease. “Vioxx did not cuase Mr. Irvin’s death,” Beck said.

The Houston case comes on the heels of two state cases, the first which issued a $253.4 million verdict against Merck, the second of which sided with the drug company.

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