Merck & Co. executives privately discussed adding an aspirin-like compound to Vioxx in order to make the blockbuster painkiller protect the heart the way aspirin does, a company researcher said Monday, five weeks into a trial over whether the now-withdrawn drug caused a man’s heart attack.

In the third day of cross examination of Merck researcher Dr. Alise Reicin, a lawyer for a man who blames Vioxx for his heart attack discussed the company’s actions after an internal study showed people using Vioxx had five times as many heart attacks as those using naproxen, an older, cheaper pain reliever.

Reicin has maintained that the reason for those results was not that Vioxx caused heart attacks, but that naproxen protected the heart, like aspirin.

On Monday, she discussed minutes from meetings in which top executives of the pharmaceutical company discussed reformulating Vioxx with an aspirin-like compound. The company, meanwhile, was busy touting Vioxx for its ease on the stomach.

Frederick “Mike” Humeston, 60, an Idaho postal worker, is suing Merck for product liability, alleging his intermittent use of Vioxx over two months caused his heart attack four years ago.

Merck says Humeston’s job stress and health risks, not Vioxx, caused his heart attack. The company faces more than 6,500 similar lawsuits.

Reicin testified that reformulating Vioxx was just one of the ideas that Merck doctors were discussing, and that the company believed Vioxx was safe for the heart. A year ago, the Whitehouse Station-based drug maker pulled Vioxx off the market after a new study showed it doubled risk of heart attacks and strokes when taken for at least 18 months.

David Buchanan, Humeston’s lawyer, sparred with Reicin over whether Merck should have notified physicians or the public that it was quietly trying to address concerns about Vioxx posing a cardiovascular risk compared to naproxen.

“Are you aware of any public statements by the company telling patients … ‘You may want to be careful taking Vioxx’?” Buchanan asked.

Reicin said she knew of no such communications, but reiterated the company’s belief then that Vioxx posed no heart risk.

Buchanan also showed the jury documents in which Merck contemplated a $437 million drop in 2001 revenues if the company couldn’t resolve the cardiovascular risks linked to Vioxx. Merck planned to spend $410 million to attract new Vioxx users that year.

In August, a Texas jury found Merck liable in a Vioxx user’s death. Damages there will be cut to about one-tenth of the jury’s $253 million award due to that state’s caps on punitive damages.

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