Health Highlights: Dec. 25, 2005

Fired NIH Whistle-Blower Reinstated Poor Nutrition Hurts Early School Achievement, Study ShowsNew Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Approved, Maker Says 9 Families Sue UC Liver Transplant Program Stem Cell Research Faked: Report

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

Fired NIH Whistle-Blower Reinstated

Dr. Jonathan Fishbein, a medical safety expert hired in 2003 by the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health and fired less than three years later after raising concerns about at least one AIDS project, has been re-hired.

The Associated Press, which reported on the problems of many government whistle-blowers in 2005, reports that Fishbein was reinstated Dec. 12.

According to the wire service, Fishbein has been assigned as special assistant to the deputy director of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, but that he probably would not resume his previous duties. Among the NIH procedures he reported as wrong or deficient were a number of medical studies, including AIDS testing. Fishbein also filed a formal complaint a division manager, alleging sexual harassment of subordinates.

At first, the NIH said Fishbein was fired for poor performance. But the A.P. reported that he had been recommended for a cash performance just a few weeks before he was fired.

A subsequent internal NIH investigation substantiated many of Fishbein's criticisms, the wire service says.


Poor Nutrition Hurts Early School Achievement, Study Shows

The lack of proper nutrition plays a negative role in academic development in young children, a Cornell University study says, especially in reading skills.

Published in the December issue of the Journal of Nutrition, the research, which examined what scientists call "food insecurity," found that "reading development, in particular, is affected in girls, though the mathematical skills of food-insecure children entering kindergarten also tend to develop significantly more slowly than other children's," said Edward Frongillo, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. Frongillo and his colleagues define families with food insecurity as "households having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate or safe foods."

The research also indicates that young girls in the primary grades whose families once were food secure no longer are have difficulty adjusting socially. "We found that kindergarten girls from food-insecure families tend to gain more weight than other girls, which may put them at risk for obesity as adults," Frongillo said.

The Cornell study was conducted over a four year period, using statistics from the U.S. Department of Education of 21,000 children who started kindergarten in 1998.


New Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Approved, Maker Says

A drug that fights painful rheumatoid arthritis by limiting a signal in a person's immune system has received government approval, its manufacturer has announced.

Bristol-Myers Squibb says the medication with the generic name of abatacept (marketed as Orencia) received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval Dec. 23.

In clinical trials published in the Sept. 15, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine abatacept more than doubled the odds that someone with difficult-to-treat rheumatoid arthritis had at least a 20 percent improvement in symptoms.

"Rheumatoid arthritis patients should be optimistic because there's now another option that works well, even where other drugs haven't," Dr. Mark Genovese, an associate professor of medicine and the associate division chief in immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University, told HealthDay. Genovese is the lead author of the study and also a paid consultant for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

More than 2 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. As the disease progresses, loss of movement and function in the affected joints can occur.

Current treatment options include over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain relievers; oral steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs, such as methotrexate; and biologic response modifiers, such as etanercept and infliximab, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

According to Genovese, abatacept works by blocking a signal that fully activates the immune system's T-cells. Because the drug modifies the response of the immune system, the risk of infection is potentially increased.


9 Families Sue UC Liver Transplant Program

The families of nine people who died while waiting for new organs from the University of California at Irvine liver transplant program have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the school.

The suit was filed Friday against the University of California, Irvine, (UCI) Medical Center, as well as some of its doctors, the former chief of the transplant program, and the University of California regents, the Associated Press reported.

The school shut the program last month in the wake of a federal government report's findings that the program had a one-year survival rate of 68 percent - 70 percent between July 2001 and June 2004. The minimum federal requirement is 77 percent, the AP said. In addition, more than 30 patients died awaiting transplants over the past two years, according to federal data cited by the wire service.

The federal report was filed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Nov. 10, according to the AP, which also reported that the hospital allegedly performed "far fewer than the 12 transplants per year required by the government for federal reimbursement."

Attorney Larry Eisenberg, who filed Friday's lawsuit in Orange County Court, alleged that the UCI program continued to accept patients even though its officials knew they didn't have the capability to perform transplants, the AP reported. Eisenberg also alleged that the program at one time did not have a liver transplant surgeon on staff, the wire service said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified general and wrongful death damages.


Stem Cell Research Faked: Report

South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk faked at least nine of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have created, a Seoul National University expert panel said Friday when it announced findings from its investigation into the controversy.

In response to the panel's report, Hwang resigned his post at the university's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," Hwang told reporters as he left his university office.

In a study published in the journal Science in May, Hwang said he used cloned human embryos to create 11 stem cell lines matched to specific patients. Recently, Hwang has been plagued by accusations that his research had been faked.

In its report, the university's panel concluded that "the laboratory data for 11 stem cell lines that were reported in the 2005 paper were all data made using two stem cell lines in total."

DNA tests are currently being conducted to determine if the two remaining stem cell lines were actually successfully cloned from a patient, the Associated Press reported.

The panel said that Hwang faked DNA results purporting to show a match by splitting cells from one patient into two test tubes for the analysis, rather than actually matching cloned cells to a patient's original cells.


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