Small-Dose Bird Flu Vaccine Proves Effective in Trials

A leading drug company says it has developed a vaccine against bird flu that protects humans better — and with far lower doses — than competing vaccines.

Before now, researchers had a major problem in making a vaccine against the Asian bird flu strain: It took large amounts of the virus to generate a strong immune response in humans.

The new vaccine, made by GlaxoSmithKline, apparently overcomes that problem. The company says two shots of its vaccine containing, only 3.8 micrograms of active ingredient, stimulated strong immune responses in 80 percent of people.

A competing vaccine required 24 times more active ingredient —- and only about half the recipients showed strong immune responses.

The difference is important, because it determines how much vaccine a company will be able to turn out.

It's not yet known whether the Glaxo vaccine will protect against mutant strains of the bird virus. — Richard Knox

Medicaid to Help Pay for Disabled to Live Alone

July 26, 2006 — The federal government has announced a plan that could help tens of thousands of people leave nursing homes and other institutions and move into their own homes and apartments.

Medicaid officials said they will give extra money to states that help people leave nursing homes and institutions for people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Nearly $2 billion will be available over five years.

About 2 million people live in institutions. The new money may help up to 100,000 move into their own homes.

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that people with disabilities have a right to live in the community, not in institutions. The court based its decision on the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act — the civil rights law for the disabled. But states have resisted moving people out of nursing homes, citing a lack of funding.

The new funding was announced on the 16th anniversary of the ADA. — Joseph Shapiro

Testosterone Supplements May Raise Breast-Cancer Risk

July 25, 2006 — A new study finds women who take the hormone supplement testosterone to reduce menopausal symptoms are at increased risk of breast cancer.

Typical hormone supplements contain estrogen and progesterone. Studies have already shown an increased risk of breast cancer among women who take this therapy.

In the new study, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard University analyzed the medical records of more than 121,000 women who were part of the Nurses' Health Study.

While only a few hundred participants were taking estrogen plus testosterone, that number increased eight-fold over the 10-year study period. That increase was likely due to evidence indicating testosterone might reduce menopausal symptoms by increasing sex drive, reducing anxiety and increasing bone strength.

This is the first major study showing that the combination of estrogen and testosterone also increases the risk of breast cancer — by two and a half times, compared to women who never took hormones. — Patricia Neighmond

Cancer Drug Gleevec May Damage Heart, Study Says

July 24, 2006 — A breakthrough cancer drug may have some unexpected, harmful side effects, researchers in Philadelphia report.

The cancer drug Gleevec is one of the first cancer treatments based on a scientific understanding of what makes a cell become cancerous. For some patients, Gleevec has been nothing short of remarkable. And unlike most cancer chemotherapies, it seemed to have minimal side effects.

But in the current issue of Nature Medicine, researchers at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia report that 10 patients developed severe congestive heart failure after taking Gleevec. The researchers say the same property that makes the drug effective against cancer may make it toxic to the heart.

In a statement, Gleevec's manufacturer Novatis says its data show that heart failure is extremely rare in Gleevec patients. And the company says the drug clearly does more good than harm. — Joe Palca

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