Health Highlights: April 30, 2006

Woman Has Full Feeling in Transplanted Face Fewer Companies Now Dominate U.S. Health Insurance Industry Former FDA Head Crawford Under Investigation FDA OKs Drug for Rare Children's Disease Pioneer in Genetics Gets Medicine's Top Prize

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

Woman Has Full Feeling in Transplanted Face

The French recipient of the world's first partial face transplant said she now has full sensation in her face and has begun speaking more clearly, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

"The scars have considerably healed. The doctors are confident," Isabelle Dinoire, 38, told the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

The woman, who lost much of her face when her pet Labrador mauled her as she was passed out from sedating drugs, underwent the pioneer surgery Nov. 27. She last spoke to reporters in February.

Dinoire said she still has difficulty with pronouncing sounds such as "b" or "p" which rely heavily on the lips, and said she remains shocked at the difference between her old and new face. "I still have a little problem of [facial] mobility, symmetry as the doctors say," she said.

The mother of two continues to take anti-rejection medications, although her total regimen has now dropped from 20 pills per day to 10.

Dinoire said she remains grateful to the family of the deceased donor. "Each day that passes, I think, above all, of the donor and her family whom I cannot thank enough," she told the paper.


Fewer Companies Now Dominate U.S. Health Insurance Industry

Small businesses in the U.S. are increasingly being forced to choose between only a handful of companies when choosing coverage for their employees, federal investigators report. The trend is worrying legislators and consumer advocates concerned about shrinking competition and higher costs, the New York Times reported Sunday.

In a typical state, the largest insurer now controls 43 percent of the market for small group coverage, up from 33 percent in 2002, according to data collected by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In nine states one carrier, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, controls more than half the market.

Doctors and small businesses are increasingly noting the decline in competition, and within two weeks the U.S. Senate is taking up legislation that would encourage small businesses to group together to help bargain with insurers to make coverage more affordable.

"Small businesses have extremely limited choices when seeking health insurance for employees," Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who is also the chairwoman of the Committee on Small Business, told the Times. In her state, Blue Cross and Blue Shield now control 63 percent of the small group insurance market.

But industry representatives say the concentration of the market among fewer companies is not a threat to consumers. "There certainly have been some large insurance company mergers in the last few years," Karen M. Ignagni, president of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, told the Times. But she said that, "The data do not show a link between concentration of insurance markets and rising health care costs."

The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates that 45.8 million Americans are without health insurance, with more than half either self-employed or working for companies with 50 or fewer employees.


Former FDA Head Crawford Under Investigation

Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford is under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury, accused of financial improprieties and false statements to Congress, his lawyer told the New York Times Friday.

The lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, did not elaborate further on the accusations, the Times said. She told a federal magistrate Thursday that she would instruct Crawford to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if he was ordered to answer questions regarding actions during his tenure as FDA head. Crawford did not reply to requests for comment from the Times.

Crawford resigned as FDA commission in September after serving less than three months in the post after his Senate confirmation. At the time, he said it was simply time for someone else to lead the agency.

The following month, the Department of Health and Human Services released disclosure forms showing that either Crawford or his wife, Catherine, had sold shares in companies regulated by the agency when he was deputy commissioner and acting commissioner.

The criminal investigation against Crawford was made public as part of a lawsuit over the FDA's action on the emergency contraceptive Plan B. The drug became the center of a bitter controversy during Crawford's tenure as head of the agency, after the FDA repeatedly delayed approval of over-the-counter sales of the drug.

FDA OKs Drug for Rare Children's Disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved the first-ever treatment for a rare and deadly illness in newborns called Pompe disease, the New York Times reported.

Studies show the drug, Myozyme, successfully treats the inherited enzyme deficiency, which destroys muscles and is usually lethal before newborns reach one year of age. The drug was developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company Genzyme with help from federal government incentives aimed at developing medicines for rare, so-called orphan diseases.

Most of the 18 Pompe disease-affected infants given Myozyme in a 2003-2005 clinical trial remain alive today, although two did succumb to the disease and 7 require a ventilator to breathe.

Myozyme is extremely expensive -- about $200,000 to $300,000 per year -- but Genzyme has promised it will supply the drug free of cost to any child whose family is unable to pay for it via insurance or other means.


Pioneer in Genetics Gets Medicine's Top Prize

An 84-year-old biologist who was among the first to suggest that genetics, not just environment, plays a key role in animal and human behavior was awarded the United States' richest prize for medicine and biomedical research, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

Seymour Benzer, now of the California Institute of Technology, received the prestigious $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize for work that began decades ago and laid the foundation for much of modern genetics research, including the Human Genome Project.

Benzer has said his interest in genetics and behavior began when he noticed that his second child behaved radically different than his first, soon after her birth. His subsequent work in flies revealed that the substitution of a single gene could bring about major changes in their behaviors.

Benzer told the AP that his work's impact lies in "opening up the whole idea that behavior can be dissected by manipulation, studying the genes."

Among medical awards, the Albany Medical Center Prize is second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize for Medicine in cash value.


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