Health Highlights: March 20, 2013

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  • Virus-Based Melanoma Drug Shows Promise
  • Doctors Urge FDA to Take Action on Energy Drinks
  • Bioethics Panel Gives Cautious OK to Testing Anthrax Vaccine in Kids

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

Virus-Based Melanoma Drug Shows Promise

For the first time, a cancer drug based on a tumor-killing virus has been successful in a late-stage study.

The drug, called talimogene laherparepvec (TVEC), was tested in a phase 3 clinical trial that included patients with advanced melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

Sixteen percent of the patients who received the drug had significant shrinkage of their tumors that lasted at least six months, compared with 2 percent of those in a control group, The New York Times reported.

Drug maker Amgen said TVEC had met the primary goal of the clinical trial. However, the company said that while people taking TVEC were living longer, it was too soon to determine if the drug had improved survival. That question may be answered later this year.

TVEC was developed by modifying the herpes simplex virus (which causes cold sores) so that it replicates in fast-growing cancer cells but not in healthy ones. It also contains an implanted protein that stimulates the immune system, The Times reported.

Amgen did not say if it planned to use the clinical trial results to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for TVEC, which is injected directly into skin tumors.

Efforts to develop this type of approach to cancer treatment -- called oncolytic viruses -- have been ongoing for years and other companies are also trying to create these types of drugs.

While these new findings that an oncolytic virus was effective, TVEC might not prove that successful as a melanoma drug, according to Dr. Antoni Ribas, a melanoma specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

One reason is that only about one-third of advanced melanoma patients have tumors on or near the skin that can be injected, while others have tumors that spread to places such as the brain or liver, Ribas told The Times.

He also noted that two important drugs for melanoma were approved in 2011, raising the level of expectations for new treatments.

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Doctors Urge FDA to Take Action on Energy Drinks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should take action to protect children and teens from the possible risks of consuming large amounts of caffeine contained in energy drinks, says a group of 18 doctors, public health experts and researchers.

In their letter to the FDA, the group said energy drink makers have failed to prove that the ingredients used in their products are safe. Because of this, the group said the FDA should limit caffeine content in the beverages and force makers to include caffeine content on product labels, The New York Times reported.

"There is evidence in the published scientific literature that the caffeine levels in energy drinks pose serious potential health risks," the group's letter said.

The letter also noted that energy drink manufacturers aggressively market their products to teens and urge them to consume the drinks quickly, The Times reported.

Energy drink makers insist their products are safe.

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Bioethics Panel Gives Cautious OK to Testing Anthrax Vaccine in Kids

Children should be allowed to take part in clinical trials for vaccines and other treatments to protect against bioterrorism attacks only if there is "minimal risk" that is no worse than a checkup at a doctor's office, according to a report by the President's Bioethics Commission.

"Research involving children is ethically distinct from research on adults," said commission chairwoman Amy Gutmann, USA Today reported.

She noted that, morally and legally, children cannot give consent to volunteer for medical experiments. However, biodefense officials say that without testing these treatments on children, doctors won't know if they are giving safe or effective doses of them to youngsters in the event of a bioterrorism attack, such as one involving anthrax.