Several years ago, America was hit by one of the many weight loss crazes that seem to capture our attention on an ongoing basis. It was known as "fen-phen," a combination of two previously available weight loss drugs, fenfluramine and phentermine. People across the country began taking the drugs in tandem, reporting astonishing results. The "magic pill" (or combination of pills) had been discovered. Or had it?
Eventually a question arose about the possibility of heart valve damage associated with the use of one of the drugs, fenfluramine. Fenfluramine's effectiveness apparently stemmed from the production of a chemical called "serotonin" it induced in the body. Serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical, produces a feeling of well being while simultaneously depressing the appetite. In larger quantities, it can be toxic to the body if it is not reabsorbed. A suspicion arose that something about fenfluramine might prevent some patients from ridding their blood supplies of the extra serotonin.
When a study at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota suggested there was, indeed, a connection between fenfluramine and heart valve damage caused by too much serotonin, the drug was voluntarily removed from the market in September 1997 (its cousin, dexfenfluramine, or Redux, was also withdrawn). Phentermine, which has not been clinically linked to any such problems, remains available.
By now, thousands of lawsuits have been filed across the United States based on the fen-phen debacle. Most plaintiffs have not experienced severe (or even any) heart valve damage, but are instead seeking to be compensated for the future expenses associated with monitoring their cardiac status. Some plaintiffs do claim to have suffered heart damage. A relatively few others have alleged a rare and somewhat different injury known as "primary pulmonary hypertension," in which the toxic effects of the serotonin travel beyond the heart to the lungs.
There has yet to be a trial on any claim by a fen-phen plaintiff. Although the first cases were set for trial in April 1999 in Arkansas and Texas, those matters have recently settled. In California, where some 700 fen-phen cases are filed, the first trials are to begin in October of 1999.
(Editor's Note: Leipold, Donohue & Shipe is not accepting plaintiff's cases in the fen-phen litigation.)