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Health Headlines - April 29

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Pioneer in Genetics Gets Medicine's Top Prize

An 84-year-old biologist who was among the first to suggest that genetics, not just environment, plays a key role in animal and human behavior was awarded the United States' richest prize for medicine and biomedical research, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

Seymour Benzer, now of the California Institute of Technology, received the prestigious $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize for work that began decades ago and laid the foundation for much of modern genetics research, including the Human Genome Project.

Benzer has said his interest in genetics and behavior began when he noticed that his second child behaved radically different than his first, soon after her birth. His subsequent work in flies revealed that the substitution of a single gene could bring about major changes in their behaviors.

Benzer told the AP that his work's impact lies in "opening up the whole idea that behavior can be dissected by manipulation, studying the genes."

Among medical awards, the Albany Medical Center Prize is second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize for Medicine in cash value.

Lawsuits Claim Illness from Stolen Body Parts

U.S. patients who unknowingly received tissues obtained from a company accused of illegally harvesting body parts are launching lawsuits claiming they contracted hepatitis C, HIV or syphilis from the transplants, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

"It pretty much turned my life upside down," one patient, Ned Jackson, 49, of Omaha, Neb., told the Associated Press. Jackson claims he contracted hepatitis B and C from lower back surgery involving the transplanted tissues.

The lawsuits are the latest chapter in a ghoulish saga involving now-closed Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS), a New Jersey company which is accused of failing to gain proper consent to take various tissues from cadavers. The tissues were then sent to hospitals where they were used in routine procedures involving an estimated 8,000 patients.

BTS' owners and three others accused in the case have pleaded not guilty to the charges laid against them.

According to the AP, so far about two dozen legal actions, most of them class-action lawsuits representing hundreds of tissue recipients, have been filed across the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration assert that the chance of any patient contracting a serious infection from the BTS tissues remains very low. But lawyers representing patients say that's not necessarily so.

"There has never been a widespread dissemination of recalled tissues. What's happened here presents a whole new scenario," Larry R. Cohan, a Philadelphia lawyer representing about 130 plaintiffs, told the AP.

UnitedHealth, Humana Leaders in Medicare Drug Plan Sign-Ups

Two companies -- UnitedHealth Group and Humana -- are the frontrunners among insurers enrolling people for the new U.S. Medicare drug benefit.

About 90 companies are administering more than 3,000 plans, but a handful of companies are pulling in the bulk of enrollees, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The leader is UnitedHealth, which has a joint marketing relationship with AARP. The company has enlisted 3.8 million people, which represents 27 percent of the enrollment so far in stand-alone drug plans, the Associated Press reported.

UnitedHealth is also first in Medicare Advantage offerings, with 20 percent (1.2 million enrollees) of the market share.

Humana is second in the market in stand-alone drug plans, with about 2. 4 million beneficiaries (18 percent). The company ranks third in terms of Medicare Advantage offerings, with about 800,000 enrollees (13 percent), the AP reported.

Companies with the largest number of people enrolled at an early stage will have a major marketing advantage later on, noted Dan Mendelson, president of the consulting firm Avalere Health.

U.S. Mad Cow Testing Likely to be Scaled Back

Testing data released Friday indicates that only four to seven cows in the United States have mad cow disease, according to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

"The data shows the prevalence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the United States is extraordinarily low," he said during a conference call with reporters. "In other words, we have an extremely healthy herd of cattle in our country."

Johanns said it's likely that testing for BSE will be scaled back after the data is reviewed by an independent panel of scientists, the Associated Press reported.

After mad cow first appeared in the United States a few years ago, testing increased to about 1,000 samples per day from a prior level of about 55 samples a day, the AP reported. U.S. officials haven't made a decision about the new level of testing. International guidelines call for about 110 tests a day.

Gene Therapy for 'Bubble Boy' Syndrome May Cause Cancer

Gene therapy to treat children with no immune system -- a condition called X-SCID that's commonly referred to as "bubble boy" syndrome -- may increase cancer risk, says a U.S. study in the journal Nature.

Children with X-SCID have a mutated IL2RG gene. The defective gene is unable to produce a protein needed for the development of immune system cells, which means the immune system cells can't develop normally and protect the body.

The gene therapy replaces the defective IL2RG gene.

In this study, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, injected mice with the same gene therapy used to treat X-SCID, BBC News reported.

The mice were monitored for 18 months. A third of them developed lymphoma.

Critics of the study say the researchers used unnaturally high doses of the gene therapy, BBC News reported.

A French study of the gene therapy in 10 children had to be halted in 2002 because three of the children developed T-cell leukemia.

U.S. Has Mild Flu Season

The fact that this year's flu vaccine was a good match for the winter's most common flu virus helped make this one of the United States' mildest flu seasons in recent years, health officials say.

There were fewer flu and pneumonia deaths than normally recorded in a typical flu season and fewer than two dozen children's deaths were reported.

As of April 9-15, flu was widespread in only five states: Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island, the Associated Press reported.

In about half the states in the country, there are now virtually no reports of flu-like illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the mild flu season is good news, health experts are concerned it may lull people into forgetting the danger posed by common flu viruses and a potential flu pandemic that could erupt from the H5N1 bird flu virus currently stalking Africa, Asia and Europe.

"I hope people would not judge what might be coming in the future based on what's happened this year," Dr. Roland Levandowski of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told AP.
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