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Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Rule on Health Care Law Gene Test May Someday Improve Prostate Cancer Treatment Senate Democrats Defeat Health Care Law Repeal Attempt Health Insurers Should Provide Free Birth Control to Women: White House

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

U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Rule on Health Care Law

Virginia's attorney general wants the U.S. Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the constitutionality of the nation's new health care law.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said a rapid resolution to the issue is necessary in order to remedy the legal and governmental confusion caused by conflicting lower-court opinions, The New York Times reported.

In making the request, he hoped to bypass an initial appellate review.

"Currently, state governments and private businesses are being forced to expend enormous amounts of resources to prepare to implement a law that, in the end, may be declared unconstitutional," Cuccinelli said in a statement.

The Supreme Court has already rejected a similar request in another legal challenge to the health care law, The Times reported.


Gene Test May Someday Improve Prostate Cancer Treatment

U.S. scientists have developed a new experimental genetic test that may someday help doctors identify which prostate cancer patients require aggressive treatment.

Most cases of prostate cancers are not life-threatening but there is no reliable method to identify them. This makes it difficult for doctors to decide whether to monitor a prostate cancer patient to see if the disease progresses or to recommend immediate treatment such as surgery or radiation, the Associated Press reported.

As a result, overtreatment is a problem among prostate cancer patients. About 48 prostate cancer patients receive treatment for every life saved, according to Dr. Ronald DePinho of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston.

In research with mice, DePinho and colleagues found that the combined activity of four genes appeared to be associated with deadly prostate tumors. The team then turned to humans and found that these genes are also associated with lethal prostate cancer in men, the AP reported.

Diagnosis of life-threatening prostate cancer was 91 percent accurate when the experimental gene test was used with the standard combination of current indicators: age at diagnosis; indications of tumor spread; and an assessment of tumor cells under a microscope (Gleason score). This compares to an accuracy of 84 percent for the standard approach alone.

The results were published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

While experts praised the research, they also said more work is needed.

"It's early still but it's pretty exciting," Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Eric Klein told the AP. "This is a step in the right direction, without question."

The research is "extremely interesting, promising, amazing work," said Dr. Angelo De Marzo, a professor of pathology, oncology and urology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.


Senate Democrats Defeat Health Care Law Repeal Attempt

Senate Democrats on Wedensday defeated a Republican effort to repeal the new health care law. The vote was 47-51, which is 13 votes short of the 60 needed to move the repeal effort forward.

The attempt to advance the House-passed repeal of the health care law, which was submitted as an amendment to an airports construction bill, did not receive a single Senate Democrat vote. Every Senate Republican voted for the repeal, reported.

The Senate did pass an amendment to eliminate one unpopular provision of the health care law, a tax reporting requirement for medical businesses that buy equipment worth $600 or more. The amendment was passed by a vote of 83 to 17.

In related news, a number of states say they will not implement the health care law after one federal district judge ruled it void, reported.


Health Insurers Should Provide Free Birth Control to Women: White House

White House officials are looking at whether the new health care law can be used to force health insurance plans to provide free birth control and other family planning services to women.

Such a move would eliminate cost as a barrier to birth control, a longtime goal of women's health and rights advocates and experts, according to The New York Times.

The health care law states that insurers must cover "preventive health services" and cannot charge for them. The Obama administration has asked an outside panel of experts to pinpoint the specific preventive services that must be provide free-of-charge to women.

The list should include birth control and family planning because there is ample scientific evidence that these services are effective, according to administration officials. But they prefer outside experts to make the recommendations so that the public would see that they are based on science, not politics, The Times reported.

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