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2nd blood test sought in death at Lilly clinic

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March 20, 2004

Lawyers for the family of a woman who committed suicide while testing an Eli Lilly and Co. experimental medication are seeking a second test to determine whether she had the drug duloxetine in her blood when she died.

An initial screening ordered after Traci Johnson's death on Feb. 7 did not specifically test for the anti-depressant duloxetine, the Marion County coroner's office acknowledged Friday.

When the initial test results were released earlier this month, the coroner's office simply said duloxetine was not cited as a cause of death. It did not say that it did not test for duloxetine.

"That's not something we typically do," said Frances Kelly, chief deputy coroner. A toxicology test usually looks for illegal drugs, over-the-counter medications and classes of prescription drugs, including anti-depressants. It does not screen for experimental drugs not on the market, Kelly said.

The coroner's office ruled Johnson's death a suicide by hanging.

Johnson family lawyer John Cordisco said his Pennsylvania law firm was requesting a second test as part of its investigation into the suicide. He said it's "paramount that we get a determination of the level of duloxetine that was in her blood" when she died.

Cordisco said the family wanted to investigate before it decided whether it would sue over Johnson's death.

Lilly has agreed to provide the scientific information necessary to screen for the drug, a company spokesman said.

Currently, the independent lab used by the coroner's office, AIT Laboratories of Indianapolis, does not have the capability to screen for duloxetine, Kelly said.

"It's the decent thing to do," spokesman David Shaffer said of Lilly's cooperation with the family probe. "It's understandable the family would have some questions about the circumstances of this young woman's death. That seemed like a perfectly reasonable request, and we are doing what we can to help them as they continue to struggle for answers."

On Monday, Lilly also will allow Cordisco to tour the Lilly Laboratory for Clinical Research, where Johnson died, and talk with staff members at the clinic.

Cordisco also plans to talk with the coroner's office about the toxicology test. The office will supply another sample of Johnson's blood for the test. It keeps blood samples on hand six months after a death, Kelly said.

Cordisco said he would receive a report today from a former Philadelphia homicide detective hired to investigate Johnson's death. The detective talked to acquaintances of Johnson's, including those here in Indianapolis, where she attended Calvary Tabernacle church and had been a student at the Indiana Bible College.

Johnson had dropped out of the school to participate in the Lilly study of duloxetine so she could make enough money to continue her education.

The study included 25 women at the Lilly clinic in Indianapolis and about 75 others at five other clinics in the country.

Duloxetine could be approved to treat depression as early as this summer, according to Lilly. The pharmaceutical firm is also seeking regulatory approval for the compound to treat stress urinary incontinence, which is most often experienced by women.

Johnson had taken duloxetine for 20 days during the study, which included doses as high as five times normal, but she had been on a placebo for four days when she died, according to Lilly.

Star reporter Jeff Swiatek contributed to this story.

Call Star reporter J.K. Wall at (317) 444-6287.

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