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Health Highlights: Dec. 9, 2007

Leukemia Drug Continues to Prolong Life, Studies Show Canadian Reactor Shutdown Causes Shortage of Medical Scan Material FDA to Study Safety of Tattoos Heavy Cell Phone Use Ups Tumor Risk: Study Half of Older Americans Haven't Had Screening Colonoscopy Triple-Drug Therapy for HIV Highly Effective

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

Leukemia Drug Continues to Prolong Life, Studies Say

Gleevec, the drug that has shown significant results in prolonging the life of adult leukemia patients, is demonstrating its effectiveness in children with certain types of the malignant blood disease, scientists announced Sunday.

Researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Cancer Institute reported at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in Atlanta that Gleevec has been shown to improve outcomes for children with Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph+ ALL), according to a university news release

Additionally, the drug, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001, continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in prolonging the lives of adult leukemia patients, the OHSU statement said.

Because the drug is relatively new, its effectiveness is under constant review, and the latest data indicate that patients taking Gleevec for six years haven't moved to the advanced stage of the cancer.

"The news about Gleevec and the childhood leukemia study as well as the six-year... study that shows there is no progression to advanced phase in CML means that more and more patients are surviving, despite being diagnosed with these cancers," said Dr. Brian Druker, chief researcher and director of the OHSU Cancer Institute.

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Canadian Reactor Shutdown Causes Shortage of Medical Scan Material

Important medical scans requiring a radioactive substance are being postponed throughout North America because the material is in short supply, the Associated Press reports.

The substance, known as technetium-99, is used in an estimated 15 million medical scans annually in the United States, the wire service reports. But the shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Canada has brought about a serious shortage. "Many, many hospitals are working at about 20 to 30 percent of capacity," the A.P. quotes Dr. Sandy McEwan, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, as saying.

These scans are particularly important in assessing the intensity of disease and conditions such as cancer, kidney illness, and heart disease. For example, a scan using technetium-99 can help determine whether a certain cancer has metastasized elsewhere in the body.

The shortage has come from the shutdown of a 50-year-old nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, the A.P. reports. The reactor, which is the major source of the isotope that produces technetium-99, has been closed for routine maintenance since Nov. 18, and its operators say it won't be online again until the end of December or early January.

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FDA to Study Safety of Tattoos

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is cautioning consumers to think about health concerns before getting tattoos.

The agency is launching its own study of safety issues involved in the body-art technique, Newsday reported.

In a statement issued Friday, the FDA said that as tattoo popularity grows, so do the known risks. What is less clear, the agency said, is the health and safety effects of the inks being used.

"Our hope is to get a better understanding of the body's response to tattoos and their impact on human health, and to identify products at greatest risk," said Dr. Linda Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, according to Newsday.

The FDA noted that risks linked to tattoos can include: dirty needles that can transmit HIV, hepatitis B and C, as well as bacterial contaminants; allergies and scar tissue formation; and, although rare, even MRI complications.

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Heavy Cell Phone Use Boosts Tumor Risk: Study

Regular use of cell phones for more than 22 hours a month increases a person's risk of developing a parotid gland tumor by about 50 percent, according to an Israeli study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The parotid gland is located near the ear. The study said the tumor risk was even greater among people who always put the phone to the same ear, who didn't use hands-free devices, or who lived in rural areas, Agence France-Presse reported.

For this study, the researchers looked at cases of 402 benign and 58 malignant parotid gland tumors diagnosed in people age 18 or older in Israel from 2001-2003.

"Analysis restricted to regular users or to conditions that may yield higher levels of exposure (eg. heavy use in rural areas) showed consistently elevated risks," according to an abstract of the study, AFP reported.

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Half of Older Americans Haven't Had Screening Colonoscopy

Only half of Americans age 50 and older have had a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer, according to survey data in the latest News and Numbers from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The federal Preventive Services Task Force recommends that everyone age 50 and older be screened for colon cancer, the nation's second-leading cause of cancer death.

The survey revealed that:

  • Some 67 percent of Hispanics, 55.8 percent of blacks, and 47.1 percent of whites age 50 and older said they'd never had a screening colonoscopy.
  • Among uninsured adults ages 50 to 64, 77 percent had never had a screening colonoscopy, compared to 54.1 percent of those with private insurance and 61 percent of those covered by Medicaid and other public insurance.
  • Just over half of people age 65 and older covered by Medicare plus other public coverage had never had a screening colonoscopy, compared with 45 percent in the same age group who only had Medicare coverage, and 34.6 of those with Medicare plus private insurance.

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Triple-Drug Therapy for HIV Highly Effective

A British study has found that standard triple-drug therapy for HIV infection gives long-term protection against the development of full-flown AIDS, Agence France-Presse reported.

Researchers analyzed data about 7,916 HIV-positive patients on the standard triple-antiretroviral drug therapy, finding that only 167 developed extensive resistance to all three types of medication. The researchers estimated the risk of such triple failure after 10 years of therapy at about 9.2 percent.

The findings appear in The Lancet medical journal.

The three main classes of drugs used in this triple therapy are nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, and protease inhibitors. The therapy is considered to have failed when the drugs can no longer suppress replication of the HIV virus, AFP reported.

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