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Health Highlights: Feb. 4, 2016

Congress Committee Angered by Shkreli's Refusal to Testify Native American Health Service Patients Dying Due to 'Horrifying and Unacceptable' Conditions New Therapy Might Cure Type 1 Diabetes Research on Embryos With DNA of 3 People Is Ethical: U.S. Panel

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

Congress Committee Angered by Shkreli's Refusal to Testify

Martin Shkreli -- who triggered outrage when he hiked the price of a decades-old drug used to treat a parasitic infection from $13.50 to $750 a pill -- refused to testify before a House committee on Thursday.

His repeated use of the Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination angered members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, The New York Times reported.

"I don't think I've ever seen the committee treated with such contempt," Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, said. He asked if Shkreli could be held in contempt of Congress, but committee chairman, Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, said he did not intend to take such action.

The committee was looking into massive price hikes of old drugs by Turing Pharmaceuticals and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International. Shkreli launched Turing but left the company after he was indicted on federal securities fraud charges in December, The Times reported.


Native American Health Service Patients Dying Due to 'Horrifying and Unacceptable' Conditions

Abysmal conditions at Indian Health Service facilities in the United States have led to numerous deaths, a Senate Committee was told during a hearing Wednesday.

Witnesses said the federal government needs to provide adequate funding for the service, and government officials in charge of the service acknowledged they lack sufficient resources, NBC News reported.

"What we've found is simply horrifying and unacceptable. In my view, the information provided to this committee and witness first hand can be summed up in one word: malpractice," Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said.

"The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services -- another agency within the Department of Health and Human Services -- has confirmed not only that these same problems continue to fester, but that they pose immediate risk to patient safety," he noted, NBC News reported.

"In fact, they have led to multiple patient deaths," Barrasso said.


New Therapy Might Cure Type 1 Diabetes

Patient testing has started on a stem cell treatment that could offer a cure for type 1 diabetes.

If the first-of-a-kind treatment works as well in the patients as it has in animals, it would eliminate the need for regular insulin injections and blood sugar testing, according to the Associated Press.

In this therapy, embryonic stem cells are prompted to turn into insulin-producing cells. These are placed in a small capsule that is implanted under a patient's skin. The capsule protects the cells from the immune system, which would otherwise attack them.

In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

A number of approaches are being used in an effort to find a cure for diabetes, but this is the first to be tested in patients, according to ViaCyte biotechnology company. It has teamed with Johnson & Johnson to speed development of the therapy, the AP reported.

If the treatment proves successful in human clinical trials, it could be available in several years for type 1 diabetes patients and eventually could also help insulin-using type 2 diabetes patients.

"This one is potentially the real deal," Dr. Tom Donner, director of the diabetes center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the AP "It's like making a new pancreas that makes all the hormones" needed to control blood sugar."

If the therapy can lead to normal insulin levels, "it's going to prevent millions of diabetics from getting dangerous complications," said Donner, who is not involved in the research.

About 29.1 million Americans have diabetes, including 1.25 million with type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.


Research on Embryos With DNA of Three People Is Ethical: U.S. Panel

It's ethical to conduct research with embryos created using DNA from three people, the U.S. Institute of Medicine says.

Creating babies from the DNA of a man and two women is done by switching defective mitochondrial DNA in a mother's egg with healthy DNA from an egg donated by another woman. This approach could prevent mothers from passing on serious genetic diseases to their children, the Associated Press reported.

The Food and Drug Administration has been considering whether to allow this technique to be tested in the U.S. and asked the Institute of Medicine for its opinion. The technique is controversial because the genetic changes made to the mother's egg could be passed to future generations.

In a report released Wednesday, the institute said the research is ethical if specific rules are followed during initial experiments. The tests must be limited to women at high risk of passing on a severe genetic disease to their children, and the first pregnancy attempts must be limited to male embryos, because men can't pass mitochondrial DNA changes to their children, the AP reported.

"It is ethically acceptable to go forward, but go slowly and with great caution," Jeffrey Kahn, a Johns Hopkins University bioethicist who led the Institute of Medicine panel, said.

"Mitochondrial DNA disease can be extremely devastating, and for the women who are at risk of passing it on to their children, they have no other option by which to pursue having a child that's genetically related to them," according to Kahn.

It's not clear when or if such research would take place in the U.S. The FDA said it would be "carefully reviewing the report and recommendations," but noted that Congress prohibited any money in the agency's 2016 budget from being used to review applications involving inheritable genetic modification of embryos, the AP reported.

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