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Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2008

Method Found to Block Parasitic Spread of Malaria in the BodyDiabetes-Linked Gene Variant Hikes Premature Birth Risk in Hispanic Women Blood Thinner May Have Caused Allergic Reactions in More Than 50 Dialysis PatientsNew Procedures at Yale Improve Safety in Obstetrics Department FDA Approves 1st New Drug-Eluting Stent Since 2004 U.S. Women's Heart Disease Deaths Continue to Decline

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

Method Found to Block Parasitic Spread of Malaria in the Body

While malaria isn't a scourge in the United States, the devastation it causes in other parts of the world -- especially Africa and Asia -- has always been a challenge for scientists, and finding a cure still remains elusive.

The parasitic infection attacks an estimated 500 million people worldwide every year with an estimated 1 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Now, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine say they've been able to identify two enzymes that help the malaria parasites spread throughout the body. And they say they've also indentified compounds that may be able to block those enzymes.

By blocking the enzymes, lead researcher Matthew Bogyo says in a university news release, the parasites stay in blood cells and die before they can escape and spread the malarial infection.

The research, published Feb. 3 in the advance online issue of Nature Chemical Biology, centered on enzymes in the parasite called proteases, according to the news release. By blocking the protease enzymes, the malarial parasites -- entering the body from mosquito bites -- can't be released, said Bogyo, an assistant professor of pathology.

"But no one really knew which proteases were responsible," Bogyo said. "The bottom line is that to combat malaria effectively, we are going to have to keep launching multiple classes of new drugs with different mechanisms of action if we want to prevent resistance."


Diabetes-Linked Gene Variant Hikes Premature Birth Risk in Hispanic Women

A gene associated with heightened type 2 diabetes risk has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight among Hispanic women, according to Yale University School of Medicine researchers.

The scientists discovered that a variant of the ENPP1 gene, found in the DNA of women who had full term deliveries and another group of Hispanic women whose babies were born prematurely, was associated with increased risk of premature birth in the Hispanic study group.

ENPP1 has been associated with insulin resistance, glucose intolerance and a risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Insofar as low birth weight and pre-term delivery is concerned, the Yale researchers theorized that the gene variant is associated with deranged energy metabolism, according to a university news release. Deranged energy metabolism causes some energy-producing substances in the body to be replaced by other substances not always associated with creating body energy.

The initial results seem to indicate that ENPP1 can be used as a predictor in other ethnic groups as well. "In our original study, 85 percent of the population was Hispanic," said Dr. Errol Norwitz, associate professor at the university's department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences.

"It appears that there are genetic variations unique to each ethnic population," he said in the news release. "We are now in the process of validating our findings in African-American, Caucasian and Native-American populations."

The study was presented during the Feb. 2 annual meeting of the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine Annual Meeting in Dallas, Tex.


Blood Thinner May Have Caused Allergic Reactions in More Than 50 Dialysis Patients

Vials of the blood thinner heparin may be responsible for allergic reactions in 53 dialysis patients from 12 states.

The suspected batches of heparin were recalled by its manufacturer, Baxter Healthcare Corp. in January, the Associated Press reports, but many vials of the tainted drug were used before the recall was ordered.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its Web site that the nine multi-vial recalled lots were all made at a single plant and that at least another 12 cases are being investigated. Heparin is used to prevent clotting among patients with kidney failure while they're undergoing dialysis.

While none of the reactions has been fatal, the CDC says, the symptoms are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous: "A probable case has been defined as an episode that includes at least two of the following signs and symptoms: 1) generalized or localized sensations of warmth; 2) numbness or tingling of the extremities; 3) difficulty swallowing; 4) shortness of breath, audible wheezing, or chest tightness; 5) low blood pressure/tachycardia; or 6) nausea or vomiting."

The A.P. identifies the states where allergic episodes have been reported as California, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

"We don't know what the problem is," but heparin remains the leading candidate as the cause, CDC investigator Dr. Priti Patel told the wire service.


New Procedures at Yale Improve Safety in Obstetrics Department

Using their own obstetrics department as the focus, Yale School of Medicine researchers have devised a set of new procedures designed to reduce medical errors in obstetric care and improve the professional staff's perception of safety issues.

The results of the study and the new procedures were to be presented over the Feb. 2-4 weekend at the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine Annual Meeting in Dallas, Tex., according to a Yale news release.

Dr. Edmund Funai, a Yale associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, led a team that implemented new procedures in the OB-GYN department that have already reduced adverse outcomes in the department by more than 60 percent during the past 2.5 years, the news release said.

"Reports in the media about patient injury in the hospital setting were causing concern," Funai said in the news release, "and we sought to apply some basic principles to obstetric care to make it a great deal safer than it is right now."

Among those principles were communication training, standardizing interpretation of fetal monitoring and creating a new staff role -- patient safety nurse. An additional benefit was the professional staff's own perception of the overall safety climate. Its awareness of OB-GYN safety issues increased by 30 percent during the study period, the news release said.


FDA Approves 1st New Drug-Eluting Stent Since 2004

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval Friday to a new drug-eluting stent for use in treating patients with narrowed coronary arteries.

The Endeavor Zotarolimus-Eluting Coronary Stent, manufactured by Medtronic Inc., of Minneapolis, is the first such stent OK'd since 2004 and the first since an agency panel convened in 2006 to examine the risk of blood clots occurring in patients who receive drug-eluting stents.

Stents are tiny mesh tubes positioned in an artery to act as a scaffold that keeps a clogged artery open. Stents can be bare-metal or drug-eluting -- coated with drugs -- to ensure that the artery doesn't re-close in a process call restenosis.

According to the FDA, Medtronic provided data from seven clinical trials in its application showing that the Endeavor significantly reduced the number of major coronary events such as heart attack or cardiac death. The company said use of its product cut the restenosis rate by about half.

"The Endeavor drug-eluting stent provides cardiologists with another option for treating the one million patients who undergo an angioplasty procedure every year to open their clogged coronary arteries," said Dr. Daniel Schultz, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

U.S. Women's Heart Disease Deaths Continue to Decline

Heart disease deaths among American women declined again in 2005, marking the sixth consecutive year of decreases, according to a new analysis announced Friday by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

It's the first time there's been a six-year consecutive decline.

The preliminary data analysis for 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, shows that women are living longer and healthier lives, and dying at much older ages than in the past.

"Considerable progress continues to be made in the fight against heart disease in women," NHLBI Director Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel said in a prepared statement.

However, she noted there are still serious challenges. One in four women dies from heart disease and women of color have higher rates of some risk factors for heart disease and are more likely to die of the disease.

"Unfortunately, many women still do not take heart disease seriously and personally," Nabel said. "Millions of women still have one or more risk factors for heart disease, dramatically increasing their risk of developing heart disease. In fact, having just one risk factor increases a woman's chance of developing heart disease two-fold."

An NHLBI-sponsored campaign called "The Heart Truth" is striving to educate people that heart disease is largely preventable. As part of that campaign, Friday is National Wear Red Day, when thousands of people across the country wear red to give women a personal and urgent reminder about their risk for heart disease.


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