Heart Drug Reverses Marfan Symptoms in Mice

Researchers report in the journal Science that they've been able to reverse the deadliest effect of a genetic disease called Marfan syndrome in laboratory mice.

People with Marfan syndrome are often tall and lanky. Most also have weak spots in their aorta, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Ruptures in the aorta can cause sudden death.

A common blood-pressure drug called losartan cured abnormalities in the aortas of mice with Marfan. Harry Dietz of Johns Hopkins medical school says his group found that losartan reduces levels of a chemical that causes the aorta problems.

"The effect in the mice was so dramatic that it's led to some degree of optimism that this will translate to people," said Dietz.

This summer the National Institutes of Health will launch a trial of losartan in 1,000 children and young adults with Marfan. — Richard Knox

Vaccine Prevents One Disease, But Promotes Another

April 5, 2006 — A vaccine that protects children from potentially deadly meningitis and pneumonia turns out to have another effect: It allows the growth of other bacteria. But health experts say the vaccine still helps far more children than it hurts.

The vaccine against seven strains of pneumococcal bacteria was licensed six years ago for children under the age of two. A survey published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine shows an 81 percent drop in the kind of pneumococcal infection doctors are most worried about: infection resistant to antibiotics. And with fewer children carrying the bacteria, fewer people over 65 were infected.

The study did show a very small increase in disease caused by a pneumococcal bacterium not included in the vaccine. The absence of the strains wiped out by the vaccine has given the new strain room to grow. Manufacturers are testing a new vaccine that includes the subtype. — Joanne Silberner

Jury Returns Split Verdict in Vioxx Lawsuit

April 5, 2006 — A New Jersey jury has returned with a split verdict in the fourth Vioxx product liability case to go to trial.

A jury of six men and two women decided unanimously that Merck failed to provide adequate warning of an association between the painkiller and an increased risk of heart attack to two plaintiffs, John McDarby and Thomas Cona. Both suffered heart attacks after taking Vioxx.

The jury said Vioxx was responsible for McDarby's heart attack, but not Cona's. The two men say they took the drug for four years and 22 months, respectively. But, Cona could produce prescriptions for only seven of those months. They have awarded $4.5 million in compensatory damages to McDarby.

Under New Jersey's consumer fraud law, jurors also decided that Merck had misrepresented Vioxx's risks to doctors. Tomorrow jurors will hear testimony to decide if Merck should pay punitive damages to McDarby. — Snigdha Prakash

Mass. Lawmakers Approve Universal Health-Care Bill

April 4, 2006 — The Massachusetts legislature has enacted a bill that requires every citizen to have health insurance and provides state subsidies to those who can't afford it.

The bill requires that people who don't get insurance through their job will have to buy it on their own, if the state determines they can afford it. The bill also promotes affordable insurance plans and allows people to pay for them with pre-tax dollars.

The state will pay all the premium for the poorest citizens and subsidize those who make up to three times the federal poverty level.

Companies with more than 10 workers will pay the state $295 per worker if they don't provide coverage. The money goes into a free care fund. But if that company's workers use the fund regularly, the firm will get a bill for their care. — Richard Knox

Soy Found Ineffective Against Breast Cancer

April 4, 2006 — Soy foods do not offer strong protection against breast cancer, according to analysis reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers conducted an analysis of 18 studies that had tracked women's soy intake and their incidence of breast cancer. They found women who did consume soy were slightly less likely to develop breast cancer. The protective effect translates into about a 1 to 2 percent decrease in risk over a 10-year period.

The study authors conclude they don't yet have evidence to determine if soy has an effect on the growth of tumors. And they caution that prior research has suggested that women who take high-dose soy supplements could do more harm than good.

Researchers suggest keeping soy products in the diet as a way of replacing high-fat foods, but don't advise taking soy as a supplement. — Allison Aubrey

Study: Americans Pay More for Less Health Care

April 4, 2006 — A newly released survey shows that Americans pay more for health care and get less than people in other developed countries.

Surveyors asked people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Germany for details about their medical care.

The United States ranked last in several measurements: coordination of care, receiving the proper medication, and access to care. The only first-place finish was in preventive care and care for chronic illness, although researchers said all six countries needed to improve in these categories.

Other polls have shown that many Americans think the United States has the best medical care in the world. One expert explained the discrepancy by saying there's confusion between more care, for example, more high-tech care, and better care, for example more attention and time from the doctor.

The survey was run by the Commonwealth Fund in 2004 and 2005. — Joanne Silberner

Study: Even Weak Vaccines Would Curtail Flu Pandemic

April 4, 2006 — A federally sponsored study shows that the nation could control a flu pandemic if it vaccinated most Americans with a single shot of low-potency vaccine.

The project used a supercomputer to simulate the behavior of a pandemic virus like the one that swept the world in 1918. The computer also simulated the movements and social contacts of more than 280 million Americans, using anonymous census data.

The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They show that a low-efficacy flu vaccine would tame the virus. If most people got a single shot, the pandemic would sicken no more than a regular flu season does every year.

But it would take 250 million doses of the vaccine. Officials say it will be several years before manufacturers could provide anywhere near that much.

In the meantime, the researchers say the nation will have to rely on other pandemic defenses, such as school and workplace closures. — Richard Knox

Implanted Tissue May Heal Damaged Bladders

April 3, 2006 — Doctors have figured out how to grow human bladder tissue in the laboratory. They are reporting initial success in implanting the tissue into seven children and adolescents.

The patients were all born with small, malfunctioning bladders. The doctors took some of their functioning cells and incubated them in the laboratory. After the cells multiplied, the doctors put them on a protein scaffolding. Then they stitched the scaffolding into the seven patients' bladders.

After an average of five years, the patients bladders' are functioning better.

The researchers hope that with more study, the procedure will someday prove helpful for people with bladder cancer and bladders damaged by inflammatory diseases. The only treatments now are external bladder bags or repairs made with intestinal tissue, which can lead to such problems as bladder or kidney stones, or acidic blood, or cancer. — Joanne Silberner

Celebrex Reduces Risk of Colon Cancer

April 3, 2006 — Cancer researchers released new analysis of a study that found the arthritis drug Celebrex helps reduce the risk of precancerous colon growths, or polyps. But the possible benefits are outweighed by the risk of heart problems, say researchers.

The studies were first reported in 2004. They found that Celebrex cut the risk of precancerous colon growths by about one-third in people who had already had similar polyps removed. The studies were halted in 2004 when researchers documented a link between Cox-2 drugs and serious heart problems. Since then, the other two popular Cox-2s — Vioxx and Bextra — have been withdrawn from the market, and a warning has been placed on Celebrex.

Now, a fuller analysis of the studies, presented this week, documents an elevated heart risk. About 3.5 percent of the study participants taking Celebrex suffered heart attacks, stroke or other serious heart-related problems. — Allison Aubrey



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