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Health Headlines - March 31

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:23pm

Mass. Gov to Ease Stem Cell Restrictions

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said he plans to reverse stem cell research restrictions put in place by his predecessor, Republican Mitt Romney.

Patrick, a Democrat, said Friday at a meeting of the Life Sciences Collaborative that he would ask the Public Health Council to change the stem cell research rules, the Associated Press reported.

"I believe that life sciences should be guided by science, not politics," Patrick said at the gathering of biotechnology officials.

The restrictions put in place last August by Romney, a presidential hopeful, said that embryos could not be created for the sole purpose of using them for research. That prompted complaints from researchers who said that could prohibit them from using some embryonic stem cells, the AP reported.

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HIV Cases in Asia Could Double in Five Years

Unless governments in Asia take action to halt the spread of HIV, the number of people infected with the virus could double within five years, experts warned Friday.

Currently, about 8.6 million people in Asia are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. If current levels of inadequate government response continue, that number could increase to about 20 million within five years, said the independent Commission on Aids in Asia.

The commission, which is funded by UNAIDS, issued the warning during a two-day workshop in Manila, Philippines, the Associated Press reported.

HIV/AIDS kills about 500,000 people a year in Asia and causes financial losses of about $10 billion a year. The commission said the economic cost could reach $29 billion a year if the epidemic is not brought under control within five years.

Despite the serious threat posed by HIV/AIDS, the commission noted that current spending on HIV control in Asia is only about 10 percent of the required $5 billion a year, the AP reported.

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Sedative Drugs Increase Risk of Early Death in Alzheimer's Patients

The inappropriate use of sedative drugs called neuroleptics to control the behavior of dementia patients in nursing homes is causing the early death of many of those patients, concludes a study released by the Alzheimer's Research Trust in the U.K.

A five-year investigation found that patients prescribed neuroleptics died an average of six months earlier than normal, BBC News reported. It's known that dementia patients who take these drugs are three times more likely to have a stroke.

Neuroleptics include chlorpromazine, haloperidol, risperidone, thioridazine and trifluoperazine. Guidelines recommend that these drugs be given to patients who are severely agitated or violent. But study lead researcher Professor Clive Ballard of King's College London said the drugs are used inappropriately in most cases and cause more harm than good.

He and his colleagues studied 165 Alzheimer's disease patients at more than 100 nursing homes who were being prescribed neuroleptics. The researchers switched half the patients to dummy (placebo) pills, while the other half kept taking neuroleptic drugs.

At 24 months, 78 percent of the patients in the placebo group were still alive, compared with 55 percent of those in the neuroleptic group. At 36 months, the survival rates were 62 percent vs. 35 percent and at 42 months, 60 percent vs. 25 percent, BBC News reported.

The findings were presented at the Alzheimer's Research Trust conference in Edinburgh.

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Investigators Mull NIH Conflict-of-Interest Policies

A wide-ranging review of conflict-of-interest policies at the U.S. National Institutes of Health being conducted by federal investigators could have a major impact on scientists who don't work for the agency but receive government funding for their research, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, NIH conflict-of-interest rules don't apply to grantees outside the agency. The institutions, such as universities, where those researchers work are expected to enforce their own ethics rules and report any conflicts of interest to the NIH.

In a letter to Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Health and Human Services inspector general Daniel Levinson outlined the plans for the review, which will "determine the extent to which the NIH oversees grantee institutions' financial conflict-of-interest issues."

Taking a closer look at conflict-of-interest among government-funded scientists at outside institutions is necessary, experts said.

"Many senior scientists in academia supported by NIH also have well-paid private arrangements with drug companies, arrangements that may harm their medical research," Ned Feder, an investigator for the advocacy group Project on Government Oversight, told the AP.

In his letter, Levinson said criminal investigators in his office are also looking into potential conflicts of interest by 103 NIH scientists who received payments from drug and biotech companies and were previously the focus of internal NIH investigations last year, the AP reported.

In 2005, the NIH banned agency employees from consulting for drug companies.

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Animal Studies Suggest Anesthesia Drugs Harm Children's Brains

Animal studies that suggest that anesthesia can be harmful to developing brains have raised concerns about potential risks for young children who have surgery.

But at a meeting held Thursday to discuss the issue, U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists said they have no evidence that anesthesia and sedation drugs can cause brain damage in children, the Associated Press reported.

"A safety signal has been identified in animals for many drugs used to provide sedation and anesthesia. This database is growing. The relevance of the animal findings to pediatric patients is unknown," Dr. Arthur Simone, an FDA medical officer, told experts at the meeting.

An FDA study published this month in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia said the drugs can lead to subtle, prolonged changes in behavior -- including learning and memory problems -- in rats and other laboratory animals, the AP reported.

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Green Tea May Help Fight HIV

Green tea may help reduce the risk of HIV infection and slow the spread of the virus in people who are already infected, concludes a study by U.S. and U.K. scientists.

They found that a component of green tea called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) prevents HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- from binding to immune system cells. EGCG does this by binding to immune system cells first, leaving no room for HIV to attach to the cells, BBC News reported.

The study, which looked at the ability of EGCG to block HIV from binding to immune cells in test tubes, appears in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"Our research shows that drinking green tea could reduce the risk of becoming infected by HIV, and could also slow down the spread of HIV," said Professor Mike Williamson of the University of Sheffield in the U.K.

"It is not a cure, and nor is it a safe way to avoid infection, however, we suggest that it should be used in combination with conventional medicines to improve quality of life for those infected," he said.

Williamson said research is underway to determine the levels of protection offered by different amounts of green tea, BBC News reported. Experts not involved in the study noted that this is very preliminary research.

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