Health Highlights: April 12, 2007

Gleevec Prevents Gastro Tumor Recurrence: Study U.S. Soldiers Said to be 'Shortchanged' by Disability Ratings System U.S. Senate Passes Stem Cell Research Bill Pollutants May Be Linked to Diabetes: Study Too Many Spanish Doctors and Nurses Drink and Drive: Study Groups Demand End to Two-Year Medicare Wait for Disabled People

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

Gleevec Prevents Gastro Tumor Recurrence: Study

People who took the drug Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) after having a particular type of gastrointestinal tumor removed were significantly less likely to have the cancer recur than people who didn't take the drug, the U.S. National Institutes of Health said Thursday in announcing results of a new study.

Some 97 percent of people who took Gleevec after removal of a primary gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) did not have a recurrence of their cancer, versus 83 percent of GIST patients who took a placebo for one year, the NIH said in a statement. The five-year trial was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, and conducted by the American College of Surgeons Oncology Group.

The drug was generally well tolerated, and side effects were similar to those observed in prior trials of the drug for other uses. The side effects included nausea, diarrhea, and swelling.

Experts said the results had major implications for people with this type of cancer. "Conventional chemotherapy agents have been notoriously ineffective in GIST," said Dr. Ronald DeMatteo at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Ketting Cancer Center. "This study for the first time demonstrated that targeted molecular therapy reduces the rate of recurrence after complete removal of a primary GIST."

Gleevec belongs to a class of drugs that block cellular communication, preventing tumor growth. It was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2002 to treat GIST tumors that couldn't be removed by surgery or had spread to other parts of the body.

Gleevec has earned a reputation as a cancer "wonder drug," for its ability to beat back leukemia and certain types of stomach tumors. It also shows promise against autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.


U.S. Soldiers Said to be 'Shortchanged' by Disability Ratings System

There are inconsistencies in the way the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs rate military service members' disabilities, and injured U.S. Army soldiers may be getting shortchanged on retirement and health care benefits, says the chairman of the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission.

Testifying before a Senate panel on Thursday, retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott outlined problems in the ratings systems, the Associated Press reported.

"It is apparent that service members are not well-served," Scott told the joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. The hearing was scheduled to look at problems in the system.

Critics charge that the ratings can be easily manipulated to limit disability payments to service members and create unnecessary confusion in a system already under tremendous stain, the AP reported.

The Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission conducted a preliminary review of VA and Pentagon data and found that the Army was most likely to give an injured service member a disability rating of less than 30 -- the cutoff point for lifetime retirement payments and health care. Disability ratings assigned by the VA tended to be higher.

Different standards may explain some differences in ratings, but, Scott said, "It is also apparent that DOD (Department of Defense) has strong incentive to assign ratings less than 30 percent so that only separation pay is required."


U.S. Senate Passes Stem Cell Research Bill

Ignoring President George W. Bush's threat of a veto, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to ease restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the Associated Press reported.

The bill would provide federal funding for research on stem cells from unused embryos at in-vitro fertilization clinics that would otherwise be destroyed. Currently, federal money is limited to research on 21 embryonic stem cell lines that existed as of August 2001. However, scientists say most of these lines have been contaminated and are useless for research.

In a statement released after the Senate vote, Bush said the bill "crosses a moral line that I and many others find troubling. If it advances all the way through Congress to me desk, I will veto it." Bush vetoed a similar bill last year, the AP reported.

Bush and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research liken it to abortion because embryos have to be destroyed to harvest the stem cells.

The Senate also voted 70-28 to pass a measure that supports research in adult stem cells, the AP reported.


Pollutants May Be Linked to Diabetes: Study

There may be a link between pollutants called persistent organic pesticides (POPs) and type 2 diabetes, says an international study published in the journal Diabetes Care.

The study found high levels of POPs in the blood were associated with insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. The study authors noted that POPs are stored in fatty tissues and suggested that this may be why obese people have an increased risk of developing diabetes, BBC News reported.

People with insulin resistance are unable to remove excess glucose from their blood. This is often a major step in the development of type 2 diabetes.

However, some experts said this study does not offer conclusive evidence of a link between POPs and the development of diabetes, BBC News reported. It may be that insulin resistance may hinder a person's ability to clear POPs from the body.

Matt Hunt, head of science information at Diabetes UK, said this is a complex area of research and this study and others have offered no details of a mechanism by which POPs could cause insulin resistance, BBC News reported.


Too Many Spanish Doctors and Nurses Drink and Drive: Study

Spanish doctors and nurses admit to disturbingly high levels of drinking and driving, says a study in the current issue of the journal BMC Public Health.

The study of 16,171 Spanish university graduates found that female nurses and doctors and male nurses were all 1.2 times more likely to drink and drive than university graduates who did not work in the health field. Male doctors were even worse -- they were twice as likely to drink and drive.

"The role of these health professionals in educating the population regarding the health consequences of drinking and of drinking and driving has long been advocated. Yet their capability to do so may be impaired due to their own lifestyles," wrote the study authors from the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona.

Overall, 30 percent of the 16,171 university graduates reported that they "sometimes" drove after drinking. The study also found that drinking and driving was associated with other unsafe behaviors, such as binge drinking, drinking daily, not wearing seat belts, and being a former smoker.


Groups Demand End to Two-Year Medicare Wait for Disabled People

The U.S. Congress must eliminate the current two-year wait for Medicare coverage for people whose severe and debilitating disabilities prevent them from working, dozens of patient advocacy groups contend.

The groups' position came in response to a report released Wednesday that found 600,000 disabled people go without health care or go into debt while waiting for Medicare coverage.

"Congress must eliminate the cruel and arbitrary two-year wait for Medicare, which punishes Americans who are hit by severe illness or injuries that make it impossible to keep working," report co-author Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said in a prepared statement. The Medicare Rights Center is a national consumer service organization.

People who are deemed unable to work due to incapacitating health problems are not eligible for Medicare until two years after they receive their first Social Security Disability Income benefit. Currently, about 1.5 million Americans with severe and permanent disabilities are in the Medicare waiting period. Each year, about 12 percent of disabled people die before their Medicare coverage begins.

"The report chronicles the devastating health and financial toll that the waiting period takes on the lives of hard-working Americans who are stranded without health coverage after they become disabled," Hayes said.

The report, which includes the experiences of 21 disabled people while waiting for Medicare coverage, was published by The Commonwealth Fund.

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