Hope or Hype: The Obsession with Medical Advances and the High Cost of False Promises

By Richard A. Deyo; Donald L. Patrick | Go to book overview

4

Why Newer Isn't Always Better
Unpleasant Surprises, Recalls, and Learning Curves

The scientists of the 1940's and 1950's were coming up with drugs that treated what
was never before treatable…. It was a heady time. Arrogance came out of real
accomplishment, not thin air. But along with accomplishment was this incredible
shortsightedness. I don't know if the two can be divorced. —Dr. David Mock, whose
mother received diethylstilbestrol1

"MY DOCTOR told me he had the magic bullet," according to Chris Vanselous, recounting her story to the Washington Post. She had miscarried six babies when her doctor prescribed diethylstilbestrol, or DES, which was then a new synthetic estrogen. Vanselous recalled, "He said I'd have a bigger, healthier, brighter child." She did have a baby this time, but her daughter, Jill, was born with abnormal reproductive organs that led to infertility.

In 1999, after growing up and marrying, Jill settled a lawsuit with drug maker Eli Lilly, once the largest distributor of DES; she hoped that funds from the settlement would help her in adopting a child.2 In addition to causing infertility in some daughters of women who took DES, the drug, we now know, is associated with a rare form of vaginal cancer in the daughters. Recent studies suggest a higher risk of breast cancer, as well.3,4

A biochemist synthesized DES in 1938, and it became popular in 1947, when two Harvard University professors theorized that high doses could prevent miscarriages. In the 1950s, though, studies began to show that the

-41-

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