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AbbVie, facing thousands of lawsuits about its AndroGel testosterone supplement, notches a significant win

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- AbbVie notched a win late last month in its ongoing battle against thousands of lawsuits that claim AndroGel, a once-blockbuster drug marketed to treat low testosterone in men, causes heart attacks, strokes and other injuries.

A jury decided the North Chicago-based drugmaker was not to blame for the pulmonary embolism suffered by a 72-year-old Arizona retiree who started using AndroGel after seeing TV advertisements promoting testosterone therapy as a fix for fatigue and low sex drive. It marked the first verdict in Chicago federal court to clear AbbVie of any wrongdoing.

The win for AbbVie comes a few months after two separate juries in the same federal courtroom awarded huge punitive damages -- $150 million and $140 million -- to two men who suffered heart attacks while taking AndroGel, a prescription gel men apply daily to their upper arms and chest. But inconsistencies in the first verdict led the judge to overturn it and order a new trial, scheduled to start in early March. He is considering AbbVie's request he do the same with the second.

The mix of verdicts unfolding in Chicago federal court -- the epicenter of mass litigation involving multiple testosterone drugs -- suggests it is too soon to tell if the scales are tipping in favor of the drugmakers or the thousands of men who blame them for encouraging them to take drugs they believe caused them harm.

AndroGel, the market leader, hit the market in 2000, when it was approved by the FDA to treat a condition called hypogonadism, which is testosterone deficiency resulting from genetic defect, illness or trauma.

But for several years, drug companies promoted the off-label use of testosterone therapy to combat age-related frustrations including fatigue, low sex drive and increased body fat, symptoms of what it termed "low-T."

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The lawsuits allege that companies' efforts to grow the market led them to target older men without properly warning of the risk of complications.

AbbVie has owned AndroGel for only part of the drug's history. Abbott International acquired AndroGel in 2010, and AbbVie was spun off from the company three years later.

"We will keep having (trials) in the foreseeable future and in increasing numbers," said Ron Johnson, co-lead counsel for the men, plus some of their wives, with cases in federal court. Three more trials are set for May, June and July.

"We are very confident," Johnson said.

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