A court-appointed scientific panel said Tuesday it saw no proven links between silicone breast implants and disease, a finding that could hurt the claims of thousands of women suing implant makers.
Testimony by the independent, four-member committee will be videotaped for use nationwide in courts where women have filed suit contending implants made them sick.
"This adds to the trend of the past couple of years of courts rejecting the hypothesis that breast implants cause disease," said Doug Schoettinger, a lawyer for Dow Corning Corp., once the largest implant makers.
But Ralph Knowles, an attorney for women suing the implant makers, predicted the scientists' conclusions would not hold up under the scrutiny of cross-examination and wouldn't affect lawsuits.
Appointed by U.S. District Judge Sam Pointer of Birmingham to review conflicting scientific claims about implants, the scientists found no definite links between implants and systemic disease in four major areas: toxicology, immunology, epidemiology and rheumatology, the study of diseases of connective tissue such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Pointer oversees 8,600 implant cases nationwide. Sjogren's syndrome, marked by unusual dryness of the mouth, may be linked to implants, the panel said. But its symptoms "are nonspecific and relatively common in any population group," they reported.
Never before has a panel been appointed to provide expert testimony in so many cases, Pointer said in an interview.
Sybil Goldrich, an implant recipient and activist, faulted the panel for not reviewing the medical records of women who have filed suit over their implants. "`Nobody looks at those until they get to a courtroom," she said.
The panel evaluated previously published studies about systemic diseases and their possible links to implants. Members did not consider "local" problems, such as risks posed by ruptured implants.
Thousands of women have sued companies blaming implants for sicknesses including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, body aches, fatigue, memory loss and hardening of the breasts. Their lawyers claim science backs up the claims.
Manufacturers deny their products are dangerous and point to other studies that found no links between implants and health problems.
Pointer appointed the panel to sort out the conflicting scientific opinions, but a researcher trained in epidemiology aligned with the women's side said that is not what happened.
"It would be misleading to say this report shows there are no problems. What it says is, `We don't know,'" said Diana Zuckerman of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.
The panel were: Immunologist Betty A. Diamond of the Einstein College of Medicine in New York; epidemiologist Barbara S. Hulka of the University of North Carolina; rheumatologist Peter Tugwell of the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada; and toxicologist Nancy I. Kerkvliet of Oregon State Univerity.
It was unclear what role the panel's work would have in the cases of thousands of women who sued Dow Corning Corp., which last month proposed a $3.2 billion settlement to resolve the claims and help it emerge from bankruptcy court. Under the plan, women could either take what the company offered payments ranging from $12,000 to $300,000, or continue their lawsuits.
By Jay Reeves