Health Highlights: Dec. 17, 2008

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  • U.S. Public Health Agency Leaders Being Replaced
  • Gene Mutation Effects Should Be Listed on Cancer Drug Labels: Lilly, Amgen
  • Actor Peter Falk Has Alzheimer's, Daughter Says
  • Cleveland Clinic Announces First U.S. Face Transplant

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Public Health Agency Leaders Being Replaced

The leaders of a number of U.S. government public health agencies are expected to resign or be shown the door as President-elect Obama's team takes control of the White House.

Each of the current public health agency chiefs has severe critics on Capitol Hill and in the public health community, and there have been repeated charges that the Bush administration has let politics play a major role in science policy, The New York Times reported.

On Tuesday, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach said he would resign on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Dr. Elias Zerhouni has already left his position as director of the National Institutes of Health, and it's widely expected that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Julie Gerberding will be replaced by the new administration.

In addition, National Cancer Institute director Dr. John E. Niederhuber is expected to surrender his post, but may remain at the institute, The Times reported.

One leading candidate for the new FDA chief is Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician and health commissioner of Baltimore. Last year, he petitioned the FDA to ban some pediatric over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.

Another short-listed candidate for FDA leader is Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. He's been a fierce critic of the safety of several big-selling medications.

There's wide agreement among drug companies, drug-safety advocates, and powerful members of Congress that the FDA needs a major overhaul.

"The FDA has increasingly lost its emphasis on public health, and all of us have been harmed as a result," Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, told the Times.

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Gene Mutation Effects Should Be Listed on Cancer Drug Labels: Lilly, Amgen

Instructions on the cancer drugs Erbitux and Vectibix should include information on a gene mutation that affects whether the medicines will work, drug makers Eli Lilly & Co. and Amgen Inc. told U.S. regulators Tuesday.

Recent research showed that a mutation in the KRAS gene renders the drugs ineffective in colon cancer patients. Overall, the drugs reduced by 30 percent the risk of a patient's colon cancer worsening. However, more detailed analyses showed that patients with KRAS mutations fared much worse than those with a normal KRAS gene, Bloomberg news reported.

An FDA advisory panel met Tuesday to discuss data on the KRAS gene mutation. The advisers said new types of analyses may be required to better screen people for gene mutations, and they also suggested larger clinical trials may be necessary to determine other biochemical influences on drug performance.

"Two companies have come to us to try to create a situation where they sell less products. This is the first time I've seen this at the FDA," said advisory panel member Derek Raghavan, director of the Taussig Cancer Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, Bloomberg reported.

The FDA is currently working to identify genes that interact with medications. The agency already requires patients to undergo genetic testing before they're prescribed certain drugs.

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Actor Peter Falk Has Alzheimer's, Daughter Says

Actor Peter Falk, best known as the disheveled TV detective Columbo, whose "Just one more thing" became a household phrase, has developed Alzheimer's disease and no longer recognizes people, according to papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Associated Press reported.

The papers were filed by the 81-year-old Falk's daughter, Catherine Falk, requesting a conservatorship of his assets. A hearing has been scheduled for late January, the AP said.