Merck Stands by Vioxx Study Data

There's renewed controversy over a scientific paper published five years ago on the safety of the painkiller Vioxx.

The dispute centers on whether drugmaker Merck hid heart attacks related to Vioxx from The New England Journal of Medicine. In December last year, the journal charged that the company omitted several heart attacks from a key Vioxx study it published. Merck officials responded this week, maintaining the company revealed everything it knew about Vioxx and heart attacks when the study was submitted to the journal in May 2000. But the journal's editors say documents show that Merck knew about the additional heart attacks by July 2000 and that the company should have notified the journal.

In addition, NPR has obtained a company memo showing Merck officials knew about the additional heart attacks even sooner — by the end of May 2000 — just eight days after the study was first turned in to the New England journal. — Joe Neel

Popular Supplement May Ease Severe Joint Pain

Feb. 21, 2006 — A popular nutritional supplement for joint pain doesn't seem to make a difference for most people, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate is taken by millions of Americans, at a yearly cost of about $730 million. Researchers from the University of Utah analyzed more than 1,500 patients with arthritic knee pain before — and six months after — taking the nutritional supplement.

For the majority of patients, there was no difference between the supplement and a placebo. But for one important group — those with moderate to severe pain — there was a difference. Those patients reported a 24 percent decrease in pain compared to placebo. While these findings are promising, researchers caution that more study focused just on the group that reported a benefit is needed before concrete recommendations can be made. — Patricia Neighmond

Sign-Ups Increase for Medicare Rx Benefit

Feb. 22, 2006 — More than a million people have signed up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in just the last month, federal officials are reporting. But outside analysts remain concerned about the program's slow start.

The Medicare program is now helping pay for drugs for more than 25 million of the program's 42 million beneficiaries. But the vast majority of those already had drug coverage, either through a former employer, a Medicare HMO or the Medicaid program for the poor.

So far just under 5 million people have signed themselves up for new drug plans out of the 22 million who didn't previously have coverage. Medicare officials are touting the fact that 1.5 million people have signed up just since mid-January. But patient advocates note that fewer than expected people are benefiting from special help for those with low incomes. Business analysts are concerned that enrollment needs to grow faster in order to keep the program financially viable.— Julie Rovner

Brain Exercise May Prevent Alzheimer's

Feb. 21, 2006 — An expert panel appointed by the National Institutes of Health says there should be more research into how to prevent already healthy people from getting Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

Right now, research is almost solely focused on the causes in people who already have the disease.

But the panel noted that scientists have now identified factors that seem to delay or even prevent dementia. The scientists looked at nearly 100 research papers and found that physical exercise makes a difference. Brain exercise also makes a difference; people who learn new things seem less likely to develop Alzheimer's.

Other preventive factors include avoiding heart disease and depression, having strong social connections, and higher levels of education. It's unclear why these matter. But the panel said more research could help people as they age.

The report appears in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association. — Joseph Shapiro

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