From: Reuters
Published May 21, 2008 03:21 PM

Jail terms demanded in French growth hormone trial

By Thierry Leveque

PARIS (Reuters) - French prosecutors demanded jail terms and fines on Wednesday for four out of seven former health professionals on trial over the distribution in the 1980s of growth hormones contaminated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Prosecutors said 114 people, mostly children, died from the brain-wasting disease that causes rapid dementia and death after being injected with the tainted hormones.

The trial began on February 6 after a 17-year investigation.

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The seven doctors and pharmacists were facing charges of aggravated deception, manslaughter and causing unintentional injury. Prosecutors said three should be acquitted. The other four could face up to three years in jail.

"It is unacceptable, intolerable that health professionals continued to function blindly and committed so many errors and acts of neglect," prosecutor Dominique Perard told the court as she summed up her case.

"This tragedy could have been avoided," she said.

The case, which carries echoes of a separate scandal over HIV-contaminated blood transfusions in the 1980s, centers on a program to treat children of short stature with growth hormones extracted from human pituitary glands.

The defendants admitted making mistakes, but they argue the risks connected with the treatment were not known at the time.

Luc Montagnier, the French scientist who identified the AIDS virus, told the court he had warned colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in 1980 that the hormone they were extracting from pituitary glands could carry Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The defendants include Jean-Claude Job, 85, former president of the France-Hypophyse association and Fernand Dray, former head of a research unit at the prestigious Pasteur Institute.

Investigators found evidence that France-Hypophyse, which had a monopoly on collecting and distributing pituitary glands from corpses in France and eastern Europe, often worked in unhygienic conditions.

The radio-immunology unit at the Pasteur Institute, which extracted the hormones from the glands, is also accused of sloppiness in handling, transporting and stocking the material.

Half of the 120,000 organs acquired in 1983-88 for sums of between 35 and 50 francs (5-7 euros) came from corpses in Bulgaria and Hungary, many from neurological or infectious wards.

The case continues.

(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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