Health Buzz: FDA Clears Stem Cell Trial to Treat Blindness

Your primary care team will see you now; mental illness hits 1 in 5 U.S. adults in past year.

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Trial Will Test Stem Cells as Treatment for Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy

Federal officials have once again approved a clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells—this time, only the second, in an effort to treat a rare disease that causes blindness in young people. Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company based in Marlborough, Mass., said today that it received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the company expects the study to begin early next year with 12 patients diagnosed with Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy. The condition, which is currently incurable, progressively destroys vision beginning at around age 10. Researchers will inject between 50,000 and 200,000 healthy retinal cells derived from stem cells into each patient's eyes; in animal studies, the cells helped prevent further vision loss and restored some sight. "I think this marks the beginning of a new era for stem cell research," Robert Lanza, the company's chief scientific officer, told The Washington Post. "After a decade of intense controversy, the field is finally ready to prove itself—and to actually start helping patients suffering from a range of horrific diseases. It also shows the new readiness of the FDA to work with researchers to move exciting new stem cell therapies out of the laboratory and into the clinic."

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  • Your Primary Care Team Will See You Now

    You're likely to see your future primary care delivered by a "team" of health professionals rather than your doctor, family physician Kenny Lin writes in his blog for U.S. News. A high-functioning health team doesn't require doctors to issue orders all the time—or expect nurses to read their boss's mind. These medical assistants can read charts and test results to determine if a patient, say, needs a referral or isn't up to date on an immunization. Medical degrees aren't required for these things, according to a 2004 commentary on health care teams that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. If doctors can hand off some of their responsibilities to others on their medical team, this would solve two tough problems in today's medical system. First of all, we're facing a primary care physician shortage that's only going to get worse when nearly all Americans get health insurance in 2014. Massachusetts and California, which already have universal health care systems, have seen severe shortages in pediatricians, family physicians and obstetrician-gynecologists. Medical teams could allow doctors to expand their practices, seeing more patients each day. They could also solve the time-crunch problem where appointment slots in some offices have been reduced to 12 minutes per patient. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can set aside far more time to discuss lifestyle changes and the side effects of various medications than doctors rushing from room to room. [Read more: Your Primary Care Team Will See You Now.]

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    • Mental Illness Hit 1 in 5 U.S. Adults in Past Year

      A new survey finds that 20 percent of U.S. adults—over 45 million people—experienced mental illness in the past year, HealthDay reports. Overall, 4.8 percent (11 million people) suffered serious mental illness, 8.4 million people had serious thoughts of suicide, 2.2 million made suicide plans, and one million attempted suicide, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

      Nearly 20 percent (8.9 million) of adults with mental illness in the past year also had a substance abuse disorder, the report found. The rate was 25.7 percent for those with a serious mental illness—about four times higher than the rate of 6.5 percent among people without a serious mental illness.

      The survey, which included 67,500 adults nationwide, was released Thursday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Too many Americans are not getting the help they need and opportunities to prevent and intervene early are being missed," SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde said in an agency news release. [Read more: Mental Illness Hit 1 in 5 U.S. Adults in Past Year.]