Link Strengthened between Air Pollution, Asthma

Sept. 21, 2005 — Researchers have found more evidence that air pollution from cars and trucks on freeways can cause asthma. Their findings appear in the November issue of the journal Epidemiology.

Scientists from the University of Southern California looked at air pollution levels in 10 Southern California cities.

They put air samplers outside the homes of 208 children who were part of a university health study. They calculated the distance of each child's home from local freeways, as well as how many vehicles traveled within 164 yards of the child's home.

Investigators measured levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant from car and truck engines. They found a strong link between increased levels of nitrogen dioxide and cases of asthma.

For every three-quarters of a mile closer the children lived to a freeway, the risk of asthma increased by 89 percent. Considering the high cost of treating childhood asthma, researchers suggest a re-evaluation of pollution regulation. — Patricia Neighmond

Disability Rights Groups Protest Medicaid Cuts

Sept. 21, 2005 — Members of a disability rights group are telling government officials to stop cutting money for health care. The group is worried about proposed state and federal budget cuts for Medicaid.

A couple hundred protesters — many in wheelchairs — gathered at congressional and government offices. They said their lives depend upon Medicaid, and they carried a wood coffin to the Washington office of the National Governor's Association.

Bob Kafka of the group ADAPT said many of the protesters worry they'll have to compete for services with victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"We want people affected by Katrina helped, but we want low-income people with disabilities to get the respect, the services, and the dignity they need to live in their own homes and communities," Kafka said.

Governors in every state are trying to cut Medicaid, the state and federal health program for the poor. Costs are rising 11 percent a year, and now make up 21 percent of state budgets. — Joseph Shapiro

Spending on Biomedical Research Doubles

Sept. 20, 2005 — A paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says the United States doubled its spending on biomedical research from 1994 to 2003. But the money hasn't translated into an increase in new therapies.

In 2003, the United States spent $94.3 billion on biomedical research. Adjusted for inflation, that was double the spending 10 years earlier.

"We were surprised that the increase has been as steady over the decade and as large as it has been," says Hamilton Moses, chairman of the Alerion Institute and lead author of the paper. Both industry and government increased research spending.

Moses says the number of new therapies hasn't kept pace. He says historically it takes a couple of decades for basic science to be translated into new treatments. He says more money needs to be spent on what's called translational research. That's research aimed at determining which basic scientific discoveries are most likely to yield new therapies. — Snigdha Prakash

Stem Cells Help Repair Damaged Spinal Cords in Mice

Sept. 19, 2005 — Scientists in California have used human stem cells to treat mice with spinal cord injuries. The cells helped the mice recover some function in their paralyzed hind legs.

The stem cells the California scientists were not embryonic stem cells but so-called neural stem cells. They were derived from human fetal nervous systems.

Unlike embryonic stem cells, the neural stem cells are only thought to make certain cells in the nervous system. But those are the very cells damaged or destroyed in spinal cord injury.

In the experiment, scientists used a special strain of mice that tolerate the transplant of human cells. They damaged the spinal cords of these mice, causing paralysis to the rodents' rear legs. They then injected the stem cells and saw improvements. When the transplanted cells were destroyed, the improvements went away. Although the goal is to try similar transplants in humans, that is years away.

The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. — Joe Palca

Study: Newer Antipsychotic Drugs No Better Than Old

Sept. 19, 2005 — A new study appearing this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that most people with schizophrenia don't stay on medication.

The study was designed to see whether newer antipsychotic drugs work better than older ones. Researchers at 57 sites across the United States prescribed one of five drugs to people with schizophrenia.

All the drugs have side effects. Some cause weight gain or diabetes or high cholesterol. Some cause tremors or stiffness. Three quarters of the patients went off the drugs within 18 months. Even the best drug — olanzepine, or Zyprexa — proved unpopular; 64 percent of those on it dropped off.

As for whether older or newer, more expensive drugs are better, they pretty much came out equal. — Joanne Silberner

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