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Health Highlights: Feb. 28, 2011

Gene Therapy Leads to HIV-Resistant Blood Cells U.S. Health Care Quality Slowly Improving, Disparities Persist: Reports Higher Education Linked to Lower Blood Pressure Tobacco Companies Sue FDA

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

Gene Therapy Leads to HIV-Resistant Blood Cells

Many scientists were thrilled four years ago when an AIDS patient in Germany was apparently cured after receiving blood cells from a donor with natural immunity to HIV.

To determine whether this feat could be safely replicated, a group of researchers in California used genetic engineering to infuse billions of HIV-resistant blood cells into six male patients. On Monday, they announced that the new HIV-resistant cells were flourishing -- meaning that the men's bodies were now making some of their own HIV-resistant cells.

The new cells lack the protein receptor -- also known as a "docking station" -- called CCR5, through which HIV invades the T-cells that are major players in the human immune system. A handful of people are missing both copies of the CCR5 gene and so appear completely resistant to HIV.

The company behind the tests is a California biotechnology company called Sangamo BioSciences Inc.

"For the first time, people are beginning to think about a cure," Dr. John Zaia, head of the government panel that oversees gene therapy experiments, told reporters during a news conference announcing the results.

But, Dr. Jacob Lalezari, director of Quest Clinical Research of San Francisco, who led the first test of the engineered cells for the company and his colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco and Los Angeles, told the Associated Press that talk of a cure was "way overstated."

"It's an overreach of the data" to suggest that the results so far are a possible cure. There are a lot of people out there with hopes and dreams around the C-word," so it's important to be cautious, he said.

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U.S. Health Care Quality Slowly Improving, Disparities Persist: Reports

Health care quality in the United States is improving by a rate of about 2.3 percent per year, but gaps based on race, socioeconomic status and other factors remain high, according to federal government reports released Monday.

The findings are based on an analysis of more than 200 health care measures in categories of quality such as effectiveness, patient safety, timeliness, efficiency, access, care coordination and focus on the patient.

Improvements were seen in a number of categories, with the greatest advances in treatment of acute illness or injuries. For example, the number of heart attack patients who had procedures to open up blocked heart arteries within 90 minutes improved from 42 percent in 2005 to 81 percent in 2008, said the 2010 National Healthcare Quality Report and National Healthcare Disparities Report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

In addition, modest gains were achieved in rates of screening for preventive services and child and adult immunization. But no improvements were seen in measures of lifestyle modifications such as preventing or reducing obesity, smoking cessation and substance abuse.

The reports also said that few disparities in quality of care are improving and almost no disparities in access to care are decreasing. Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives received worse care compared to whites for about 40 percent of core measures, Asians received worse care than whites for about 20 percent of core measures, and Hispanics received worse care than whites for about 60 percent of core measures. Poor people received worse care than rich people for about 80 percent of core measures.

Looking at the 22 measures of access to health care services covered by the report, 60 percent showed no gains and 40 percent declined. Americans reported barriers to care on average about one-fifth of the time. This included three percent saying they couldn't get or had to wait for prescription drugs to 60 percent saying their usual care provider wasn't available on weekends or at night.

"All Americans should have access to high-quality, appropriate and safe health care that helps them achieve the best possible health, and these reports show that we are making very slow progress toward that goal," said AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy, said in an agency news release. "We need to ramp up our overall efforts to improve quality and focus specific attention on areas that need the greatest improvement."

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Higher Education Linked to Lower Blood Pressure

More education is associated with lower blood pressure levels, according to a new study.

Researchers analyzed data from 4,000 people in the 30-year Framingham Offspring Study and found that systolic blood pressure (the top number) readings for women with 17 years or more of education (a master's degree or doctorate) were 3.26 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) lower compared to those who dropped out of high school, Agence France-Presse reported.

Systolic blood pressure readings for men who went to graduate school were 2.25 mmHg lower than men who were high school dropouts.

Men and women who earned associate's or bachelor's degrees at college but did not continue on to graduate school also had lower blood pressure readings than those with less education, AFP reported.

The study appears online in the journal BMC Public Health.

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Tobacco Companies Sue FDA

Some members of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee considering whether the agency should ban or restrict menthol in cigarettes have a conflict of interest, alleges a lawsuit filed against the FDA by two major tobacco companies.

The lawsuit by Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds claims that three members of the advisory committee have received payment as expert witnesses in litigation against cigarette makers and as advisers to drug companies that make smoking cessation products, The New York Times reported.

The advisory committee will hold two meetings before it makes its recommendations by March 23. The FDA typically follows the advice of its advisory committees.

The FDA would not comment on the lawsuit, which was filed Friday, the Times reported.

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