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Health Headlines - July 1

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Norway Cancer Researcher Found Guilty of Fraud

A commission set up by the hospital employing a disgraced Norwegian cancer researcher announced Friday that it has invalidated most of his work because he manipulated or fabricated data.

Jon Sudbo, 44, has already admitted to fabricating data for studies published in prestigious journals such as The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Sudbo resigned from his post at the University of Oslo and is on sick leave from the National Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center.

According to the Associated Press, Sudbo has blamed his misdeeds on a psychological problems and academic pressures to publish.

In their report, the national hospital's commission said "The errors and gaps that have been discovered are too many, too big, and too obvious that they can be blamed on coincidental errors, incompetence or such like."

The report's authors added that Subo's actions may have harmed patients, although they failed to give details. The commission also criticized the university and hospital for not properly reviewing the researcher's work.

In one of the most egregious examples of fraudulent research, Sudbo published a paper in The Lancet last October that claimed that popular over-the-counter painkillers such as Motrin, Advil and Aleve lowered risks for oral cancer but boosted cardiovascular risk. The journal later retracted the article.

U.S. Dispatches Antiviral Drugs to Asia

The United States in May sent an undisclosed amount of the antiviral flu drug Tamiflu to a secure location in Asia, where it could be used in the event of an outbreak of bird flu, according to a report from Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

As reported by the Associated Press on Friday, Levitt said the Tamiflu "could be used as part of the international community's efforts to contain a pandemic. However, if containment was not possible, the Tamilu could be sent back to the U.S. stockpile of antiviral influenza medications."

The 12-page report from the HHS provides an update on U.S preparations in the event of an epidemic of H5N1 avian flu. The virus -- which has so far failed to mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans -- has infected 228 people in 53 countries so far, mostly from bird-to-human contact. Half of those infected have died.

According to Leavitt's report, the U.S. National Strategic Stockpile now contains enough doses of antiviral drugs to treat about 7 million people, with that capacity expected to swell to 26 million treatment courses by the end of the year. The stockpile also contains 12.3 million surgical masks and 20.2 million N2 respirators.

HHS also plans to stage a mock pandemic exercise involving health officials and the media, Levitt said.

In a related story, China's Health Ministry announced Friday it was investigating whether a 24-year-old man who died in a Beijing military hospital in 2003 had bird flu instead of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as initially thought, according to the World Health Organization.

According to the AP China reported its first official case of death from H5N1 avian flu in 2005. However, questions about the 2003 fatality were brought to light in a recent letter from eight Chinese scientists to the New England Journal of Medicine. In the letter, the scientists said tests performed at the time did not turn up SARS, but did reveal the presence of a flu virus with genes similar to bird flu.

Adding 3rd Drug Rarely Helps Ease Serious Depression

Just 16 percent of patients whose depression is not helped by two medications will benefit from the addition of a third drug, a new report finds.

The finding comes from one of the largest U.S. studies ever of depression, a six-year, $35 million project whose latest findings are published in the July American Journal of Psychiatry.

Lead author Dr. Maurizio Fava of Massachusetts General Hospital told the Associated Press that about 30 to 50 percent of depressed patients do not get relief from one or two drugs. For those that try a third medication, the 16 percent success rate is modest, but "you still have a chance," he said.

The study followed 235 people whose depressive symptoms had not eased after first using the antidepressant Celexa (one of the family of SSRI medications that includes Prozac and Zoloft). They next tried another antidepressant instead of, or alongside, Celexa. When that failed doctors prescribed them a third, older medication, either mirtazapine or nortriptyline.

Fourteen weeks into that therapy, depressive symptoms disappeared in 12 percent of mirtazapine users and 20 percent of those taking nortriptyline.

The overall 16 percent success rate is "pretty consistent with what we've believed before," Dr. Matthew Menza, of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, told the AP. Menza, who was not involved in the study, said the findings highlight the need for "new and more effective antidepressants."

Bird Flu Victims Are Mainly Young, WHO Reports

The average age of bird flu victims is 20, making the current outbreak similar in that respect to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the World Health Organization said Friday.

The current death rate among people with bird flu ages 10 to 19 is 73 percent -- highest of any age group, according to the WHO report cited by the Bloomberg news service. By contrast, most victims of seasonal flu are older than age 65.

Overall, the lethal HN51 strain of bird flu has killed more than half of its victims, according to the WHO report published in the Weekly Epidemiological Record. Since 2003, 228 cases of human bird flu have been reported, including 130 deaths, Bloomberg said.

While the HN51 strain hasn't been detected in the United States, officials say they're taking no chances, according to the Associated Press. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., announced Friday that it was removing all chickens and ducks from its children's petting farm as a precaution. None of the birds is believed infected, a zoo spokesman said.

New Treatment Approved to Prevent Elderly Blindness

A new drug that's been shown to prevent a major form of blindness among the elderly was approved Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Genentech's Lucentis (ranibizumab), dosed monthly, was approved to treat wet age-related macular degeneration. Wet AMD, a retinal disease that causes irreversible vision loss, affects about 155,000 Americans annually, the FDA said in a statement.

In clinical testing of Lucentis, nearly 95 percent of users maintained vision after 12 months, compared with 60 percent of participants who did not take Lucentis.

Another Genentech medication, the cancer drug Avastin, is increasingly prescribed "off-label" to treat AMD, the Associated Press reported. While both inhibit the protein that's believed responsible for the disease, Avastin costs about $17 a dose, while Lucentis is likely to cost upwards of $2,000 a dose, the wire service said.

At least 10,000 people with macular degeneration have been legally prescribed Avastin off-label, meaning that the FDA hasn't sanctioned the drug for that purpose, the AP reported.
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