Health Highlights: Sept. 2, 2007
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:
DNA Variant Confirms Genetic Link to Differences in Height
The scientific theory that a person's height is most often influenced by how tall his or her forbears were now has genetic confirmation.
Reporting in the Sept. 2 online edition of the journal Nature Genetics, American and British scientists say they have found a genetic variant in human DNA associated with height, and this is the first time such a genetic link has been confirmed.
The key to finding the "height" variant came through examining the coding in the human genome, according to a news release from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, one the organizations that conducted the research. Scientists examined DNA from 35,000 people and found that a gene known as HMGA2 had different coding, to indicate a person's height. A "C" code instead of a "T" code was found in taller people, the researchers said.
"Because height is a complex trait, involving a variety of genetic and non-genetic factors, it can teach us valuable lessons about the genetic framework of other complex traits such as diabetes, cancer and other common human diseases," said co-senior author Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, an associate professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Broad Institute, in the news release.
Linking height to DNA is just the first step in using DNA to identify many different human variables, the researchers report. "Soon the scientific community will have access to many more large-scale genomic data sets, making it feasible to identify additional genes involved in height," Hirschhorn added.
Cancer Society Using Entire Advertising Budget as an Alert to Problems of the Uninsured
The American Cancer Society has decided to use its $15 million annual advertising budget to attack a health problem that its chief executive says overwhelms almost every other one in the United States: the rising number of uninsured Americans.
The New York Times reports that recent U.S Census figures have shown that the number of Americans without health insurance rose in 2006 to 47 million, almost 16 percent of the population. And it is this growing number of people who don't have the coverage to get preventative tests, such as mammograms, that may be slowing down a successful fight against cancer, the Times reports.
With 560,000 Americans estimated to die from cancer this year, the financial burden actually causes poverty in one-in-five families, the newspaper says. "I believe, if we don't fix the health care system, that lack of access will be a bigger cancer killer than tobacco," the Times quotes John R. Seffrin, cancer society chief executive, as saying. "The ultimate control of cancer is as much a public policy issue as it is a medical and scientific issue."
Two other health organizations are using a significant amount of their advertising budgets to campaign for more affordable health insurance: AARP and the American Medical Association.
First New Smallpox Vaccine Since 1931 Approved by FDA
After a number of clinical trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced the licensing of a new smallpox vaccine.
The vaccine, ACAM2000 -- made by Acambis Inc. of Cambridge, England -- will be for inoculating people at "high risk of exposure to smallpox and could be used to protect individuals and populations during a bioterrorist attack," the FDA says in a news release. It is the first smallpox vaccine approved by the FDA since 1931.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paid $30 million for 10 million doses of ACAM2000 in 2006, and the FDA's announcement of the vaccine's licensing indicates that it will become a main source to protect against smallpox if it becomes necessary.
The last case of smallpox, which is often fatal, was reported in Somalia in 1977. But since the 2001 World Trade Center attack, closely followed by the mailing of anthrax spores that struck 22 people and killed five, the U.S. government has worked to prevent bioterror attacks, including smallpox.
"The licensing of ACAM2000 will make us better prepared as a nation because it provides an important, effective tool for protecting first responders and individuals with a high risk of exposure from this potentially lethal disease," said Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen, M.D., assistant secretary for preparedness and response, in the news release.
And although the vaccine is designed to be available to those who would be most exposed to smallpox initially, the supply would also be much more available to the general population with the production of ACAM2000, the FDA said.
Symptoms of Gestational Hypertension Intensifying, Study Finds
Increased stress during pregnancy may be causing hypertension to become life-threatening, new research concludes.
Writing in the September-October issue of the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, Temple University lead author Kathleen Black reported that the condition, known as preeclampsia and gestational hypertension, appears to be getting more severe in the 6-to-8 percent of pregnant women who suffer from it.
Preeclampsia and gestational hypertension occur at about 20 weeks into pregnancy, according to a Temple University news release. Black's research team found that the intensity of the condition is increasing, as are the the symptoms. "The condition is variable and can change quickly," Black said in the news release. "We need to be aware of symptoms changing from mild to worse."
The commonest symptoms of preecalmpsia and gestational hypertension are headaches, dizziness, frequent vomiting and malaise, Black said. The severest forms of this condition can cause fetal developmental problems in the fetus and sometimes can cause death, either in the baby or the mother, according to the news release.
Pregnant women with symptoms associated with preecalmpsia and gestational hypertension should contact their doctor immediately, Black emphasized.
Ground Beef Recalled for E. Coli Contamination
As one of the most popular holidays for grilling approaches on Monday. some 20 tons of ground beef are being recalled in four states due to possible E. coli contamination, the Seattle Times reported Friday.
At least nine people in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were sickened by the meat, which was processed between July 19 and July 30. The meat was also sold in Alaska.
While the sell-by dates have expired and the meat is no longer believed on store shelves, federal and state officials issued a consumer alert in case any of the meat remained in consumers' freezers.
Affected products included 16-ounce packages of "Northwest Finest 7% Fat, Natural Ground Beef" with UPC code label "752907 600127" and 16-ounce packages of "Northwest Finest 10% Fat, Organic Ground Beef" with expiration dates between Aug. 1 and Aug. 11, the newspaper said. Packages also bear the establishment number "Est. 965" inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture mark of inspection.
The beef, produced by Oregon-based Interstate Meats, was sold by grocers including Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer, and possibly other stores.
E. coli can cause mild-to-severe intestinal illness including possible symptoms of bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting.
New Drug Effective Against Resistant HIV: FDA
The new Merck & Co. HIV drug Isentress (raltegravir) is effective in suppressing the AIDS-causing virus in people who haven't responded to other therapies, the Bloomberg news service reported Friday, citing staff reviewer documents on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site.
An FDA expert advisory panel is slated to meet Sept. 5 to decide whether to recommend approval of the drug.
Isentress uses a different method than existing drugs to combat HIV. It blocks the process that the virus uses to insert genetic material into a person's DNA, which allows the virus to reproduce, Bloomberg said.
In two recent trials, the drug "reduced the virus to almost undetectable levels" after four months in as many as 62 percent of patients who took it in combination with other HIV medications, the news service said. That compared with up to 36 percent of patients who took a non-medicinal placebo along with the other HIV treatments.
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