ANGLETON, Texas -- A UCLA Medical Center cardiologist told jurors in the nation's first Vioxx-related civil trial yesterday that he believed the painkiller contributed to a Texas man's death from arrhythmia.
Asked by plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier if he believed Vioxx was a significant contributing factor in Robert Ernst's 2001 heart attack or sudden cardiac death, Dr. Isaac Wiener replied, ''I would call it sudden cardiac death and I would answer yes."
But under questioning by lawyers for Vioxx's producer Merck & Co., the doctor admitted he could not be medically certain that the man had a genuine heart attack.
Wiener, a cardiologist and co-director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Center at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, was testifying for the plaintiff, who claims that Merck's once-lucrative painkiller caused the death of Ernst, 59.
Ernst, a marathon runner and part-time personal trainer who worked as a produce manager, died of an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. He had been taking Vioxx for eight months to relieve pain in his hands.
The lawsuit by Ernst's widow, Carol Ernst, is the first of more than 4,200 Vioxx-related state and federal lawsuits to go before a jury.
The New Jersey pharmaceutical giant pulled the drug from the market last year after a study showed it doubled risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or more, but the company claims no studies link Vioxx to arrhythmia.
Last week Merck's lawyers presented evidence that the company studied whether Vioxx caused arrhythmias in nine clinical trials before the drug went on the market in 1999. They said the company found ''no clinically meaningful differences" in patients who took the painkiller compared to those who took sugar pills or other anti-inflammatory pain relievers.
But Lanier and Carol Ernst contend Robert Ernst died too quickly for his heart to show damage.
Under questioning from Merck lawyer David Kiernan, Wiener conceded that he can't say with reasonable medical probability that Ernst had a bona fide heart attack. ''I think the traditional ways of diagnosing myocardial infarction [heart attacks] do not apply in sudden cardiac death," he said.