French Appeals Court Clears Scientists in Growth Hormone Scandal

5 May 2011 2:33 pm

PARIS—After 2 decades of legal wrangling, a French appeals court today threw out charges of involuntary manslaughter and other crimes against two scientists involved in a growth hormone scandal that has led to the deaths of 125 children from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a fatal brain illness. But lawyers for victim's families tell ScienceInsider that they intend to take the case to the Cour de Cassation, France's highest court of appeal.

The verdict was a deep disappointment to victims' families, as well as a surprise, since they felt they had a much fairer hearing from the judges than they did at the first trial at a lower court. "This time the judges listened to us, and had a much better grasp of the case. It was a trial worthy of the name," says Jeanne Goerrian, a member of the Association for Growth Hormone Victims (AVHC).

From 1959 on, France treated 1698 children suffering from growth deficiencies with hormone derived from pituitary glands taken from human cadavers, a practice that has been linked to the transmission of CJD, a prion disease. Prosecutors said the scientists involved should have done more to prevent the infections; they also faulted defendants for switching to the much safer synthetic growth hormone only in 1988, 3 years after countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom did so.

But the appeals court confirmed a lower court's 2009 ruling that "no fault" had been committed by biochemist Fernand Dray, who was in charge of purifying the material at the Pasteur Institute, and pediatrician Elisabeth Mugnier, in charge of collecting the pituitary glands and monitoring treatment. Dray "can not be blamed for not having any intuition of a risk of contamination that no professional could have detected at the time," the verdict said. Mugnier "had no power to interfere in managing the collection" of the human glands, said court president Didier Wacogne.

The case has been dragging on since the early 1990s—the French wheels of justice grind extremely slowly—and two other scientists in the dock at the first trial have since died. Dray, 88, did not appear in court because he is frail and hospitalized.

At the appeal, the public prosecutor had demanded suspended sentences of 3 years against Dray and 1 year against Mugnier. This was less than the 4 years demanded at the first trial for Dray, who was also accused of corruption over foreign human growth hormone purchases. (Those charges were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.)

Today's verdict was "worse" than that of the lower court, says Caroline Toby, one of AVHC's attorneys, because the appeals court not only threw out criminal charges but also said that none of the defendants or their employers had any civil responsibility. Jean-Marc Viala, another lawyer for victims' families, says he does not rule out suing the French government for letting the disaster happen. "This should have been done a long time ago," Viala says. The state has already paid €36 million in compensation to the families of the 125 CJD patients who have died.

The Pasteur Institute has paid out more than €600,000 in civil damages to two families. But the institute should also have taken its scientific responsibility for young adults now living with the threat of CJD, French virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier recently told Science Insider. CJD can appear decades after infection, and more cases are expected to occur; Pasteur could fund research on prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment, Montagnier says. Instead, "the only gesture has been government cash handouts." During the trial, Montagnier—who could not be reached today—has testified that Pasteur failed to act on early indications that human growth hormone might be unsafe.

But Yves Agid, who was formerly in charge of monitoring CJD cases in France and is director of the Brain and Spine Institute here, welcomes the judgment: "As I said in my testimony in both trials, no one could have known at the time that the material could be contaminated and transmit the disease. There were numerous unpredictable elements that led to this catastrophe."

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