NPR Health News Briefs: April 24 - April 30


House Passes Abortion Consent Bill

April 28, 2005 — The House passed a bill Wednesday that would make it illegal for an adult other than a parent or guardian to take a girl to another state for an abortion if the girl's home state has a law requiring parental notification or consent.

The law would also require doctors to notify a parent at least 24 hours before performing an abortion on a girl from another state.

The Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act passed by a vote of 270-157. Sponsors say parents deserve to know if their daughters are having an abortion. But opponents say the measure would be more likely to drive desperate teens to dangerous illegal facilities.

It is the fourth time since 1998 that the House has approved a version of the bill. Previous versions died in the Senate. But sponsors are more confident this year, because Republican leaders have named it one of their top 10 legislative priorities. — Julie Rovner

Vitamin D Supplements Don't Cut Bone Fracture Risk

April 28, 2005 — Calcium and vitamin D supplements don't prevent bone fractures among elderly people with osteoporosis, according to a study in the British journal The Lancet.

Many people believe that taking extra vitamin D and calcium will strengthen weak bones. But a group at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland finds that's not necessarily so. They studied 5,300 people over 70 years old who had suffered a fracture in the previous 10 years and were thus at risk for another one. Participants were randomly offered daily vitamin D, calcium or both. A fourth group took a placebo.

After two to five years, there was no difference in the number of fractures among the four groups. That suggests there's no benefit from calcium and vitamin D supplements. But many people stopped taking the pills after two years, so it's hard to be sure. — Richard Knox

Law to Create Drug Safety Office Unveiled

April 27, 2005 — On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have unveiled promised legislation to create an independent drug safety office at the Food and Drug Administration.

The bill offered by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley and Connecticut Democrat Sen. Christopher Dodd would make the office of drug safety independent from drug approvers, with the director reporting only to the FDA commissioner.

The bill would also give safety officers expanded authority to order post-approval safety studies, force label changes and approve direct-to-consumer advertising in advance.

Witnesses told a Senate committee last fall that having officials who look at drug safety report to those who approve drugs in the first place presents an impossible conflict — forcing FDA scientists who approve drugs to admit they made a mistake if safety problems crop up after the drugs are on the market.

The bill faces a key hurdle, however, in that the chairman of the committee that would consider it is working on his own bill. — Julie Rovner

Drug Shows Promise for Early Stage Breast Cancer

April 27, 2005 — A drug commonly used to treat advanced breast cancer shows great promise for earlier stages of the disease. The medication could cut the risk that cancer would recur in half.

Herceptin, along with chemotherapy, was so successful that researchers at the National Cancer Institute stopped the study and decided to offer the medication to all participants. More than 3,000 women were involved.

Herceptin is now used with chemotherapy to treat breast cancer that has recurred after surgery or that has spread to other parts of the body. This is a particularly aggressive form of cancer that affects about 30 percent of all breast cancer patients.

Herceptin works by blocking the ability of the cancer cells to reproduce. Researchers are hopeful it could keep the cancer in check for years. But they caution that the medication can cause heart problems, so patients should first discuss their family history of heart disease with their doctor. — Patricia Neighmond

Ethics Guidelines for Stem Cell Research

April 26, 2005 — An independent group that advises Congress has issued ethical guidelines for research using stem cells derived from human embryos.

The guidelines came from the National Academies in response to requests from scientists who work with human embryonic stem cells. The researchers say emerging state rules about stem cells are confusing and inadequate. And the federal government offers little guidance to researchers supported by private funding.

The new guidelines say every institution working with embryonic stem cells should form a special committee to oversee their use. They also say researchers must get permission from any person whose genetic material is used in stem cell research. The guidelines prohibit offering any financial reward to donors.

The guidelines are voluntary. But scientists predict they will be welcomed by research institutions nd widely adopted. — Jon Hamilton

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