Breast Cancer Chemotherapy Drug Taxotere® May Cause Irreversible Baldness in Women

A growing number of complaints are being filed against the multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, the makers of Taxotere® (docetaxel), alleging that the drugmakers failed to warn consumers that using Taxotere could result in permanent baldness (permanent significant alopecia, or PSA). Taxotere is commonly prescribed to breast cancer patients for use in chemotherapy, sometimes in combination with other drugs.

One of the complaints, filed on behalf of an Ohio woman, alleges that Sanofi-Aventis failed to warn patients and the medical community about the risk of permanent baldness from Taxotere.

When it comes to chemotherapy medications, hair loss, otherwise known as alopecia, is usually a temporary side effect. For the many women who were prescribed Taxotere as part of their chemotherapy treatment, that hair loss is and was never temporary. Perhaps worst of all, Sanofi has updated warning labels in both Canada (2005) and Europe (2012) to include a risk for permanent baldness, but they did not update labels in the U.S., for fear of losing profit.

Just how profitable is Taxotere to Sanofi-Aventis? This particular drug has alone brought millions of dollars’ worth of revenue to Sanofi’s business, a company now valued at an estimated $136 Billion.

U.S. Drug Competition, and How Taxotere Put the Public at Risk

Taxotere is a drug that was born out of the fierce competition between Big Pharma giants Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Since 1996, the 2 companies have vied for dominance over this particular drug market share. Counter to Taxotere, however, Taxol® (paclitaxel), produced by Bristol-Myers Squibb, has been for many in the medical community, one of the biomedical-world’s greatest success stories; the drug is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and has been used as a fairly successful injectable breast cancer drug. It is touted as a naturally-occurring chemotherapy drug, and its side effects, like many other chemotherapy drugs, are mild, including temporary loss of hair.

Taxotere was created in direct response to Taxol’s success. And although the 2 drugs are part of the same family of medications – the taxenes – Taxotere is synthetic and has fewer natural properties. Sanofi Aventis markets this drug as being a more potent and powerful drug in comparison to Taxol, but this has not yet been proven or verified. In fact, some evidence suggest that Taxotere is not more effective than Taxol.

Side Effects of Taxotere Were Known, but Sanofi Decided Not to Warn

In 2015, over 230,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer. Many of these women have or will undergo chemotherapy as part of their treatment regimen. What Sanofi-Aventis failed to do was warn women like these that using Taxotere could result in permanent destruction of their hair follicles. This means, quite literally, that if a woman experiences permanent significant alopecia, her hair follicles may never – ever – again allow for the regrowth of hair.

Worst of all, Sanofi-Aventis’s own internal studies indicated a 10 percent chance that Taxotere users could experience permanent baldness. While their U.S. labels did include a warning for “alopecia”, this term is vague and really only refers to a type of hair loss that is temporary. Because of this, some breast cancer patients feel that they have been duped into believing that the medicine would not only help them beat breast cancer, but that it would also only temporarily take their hair away. These patients believed that someday, after their cancer was in remission and the treatments were over, their hair would come back.

Because of Sanofi-Aventis’s failure to warn, some women have been subject to permanent disfigurement, extraordinary mental anguish, and are now suffering from damaging psychological effects, including loss of or inability to work. What such lawsuits point out is that all of these damages could have been avoided, had the patient and the doctor both known the complete risks associated with using Taxotere. Having known the risks, it’s likely they would’ve chosen the alternative medication.

What Hair Means to Women

One doesn’t need to be on the front lines of the haircare industry in order to grasp what hair means to most women. Evidence of its significance is the market’s $83.1 Billion estimated worth. Women not only spend a lot of money in this sector of the cosmetic industry – oftentimes, hair is at the very center of woman’s sense of pride, confidence, and self-worth. The fact that Sanofi-Aventis knew about the link between their drug and permanent baldness and failed to warn American women is not only dismissive or disturbing – it’s greed-driven and outright manipulative.

Sanofi-Aventis had already acknowledged the potential for permanent hair loss, as warning labels in other parts of the world were updated to reflect this. Why did the pharmaceutical company choose to look the other way when it came to the U.S.? Because breast cancer is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and America is – by far – its most lucrative market (with nearly 15 percent of the world’s new annual cases).

A Corrupt Corporate Attitude

At the heart of this matter lies the fundamental question of human decency. While Sanofi-Aventis understood the potential disfigurements that their medication could cause, they chose not to warn Americans simply because they did not want to sacrifice sales in their largest consumer base. In reality, patients had a choice between 2 medications that have similar effectiveness – but one that has side effects of temporary hair loss, and another that could cause permanent disfigurement.

The point of providing accurate warning labels is to provide consumers with as much information as possible, so that they can make the most informed decision possible, given the variables. This is a choice that Taxotere users did not have.

The lawsuits, which have been filed in Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere, present claims against Sanofi-Aventis that the company acted in negligence, failure to warn, breach of warranty, fraud, and misrepresentation, among others. Plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages – the latter of which would be aimed at punishing the drug company.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: February 15, 2022