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Health Highlights: July 17, 2006

FDA Approves Gemzar to Treat Recurrent Ovarian Cancer Hospital Executives Under Scrutiny for Links to Suppliers Mutated Gene Causes Common Form of Dementia Medicare Changes Could Cut Payments for New Procedures Congress to Debate Stem Cell Funding Critics Say G-8 AIDS Plan Doesn't Go Far Enough

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

FDA Approves Gemzar to Treat Recurrent Ovarian Cancer

Eli Lilly & Co.'s popular cancer drug Gemzar has received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to be used as a treatment for recurrent ovarian cancer, the company said Monday.

This new approval covers the use of Gemzar in combination with carboplatin to treat women who've suffered an ovarian cancer relapse at least six months after treatment, the Associated Press reported.

Ovarian cancer recurs in 90 percent of women who are diagnosed and treated, according to Lilly. There will be an estimated 20,180 new cases of ovarian cancer in the United States this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Gemzar already had FDA approval to treat breast cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer, the AP reported.


Hospital Executives Under Scrutiny for Links to Suppliers

Some U.S. hospital executives are being treated to lavish vacations and paid thousands of dollars to advise companies on how best to sell drugs, medical devices and financial services to hospitals, The New York Times reported.

For example, executives who run some of the nation's leading nonprofit hospitals and medical suppliers recently met at a luxury resort in Colorado. The executives and their spouses received a free trip to the resort, courtesy of the Healthcare Research and Development Institute (HRDI).

The institute is a for-profit company that's owned by about three dozen hospital executives but underwritten by about 40 corporate members who all sell supplies to hospitals, the Times reported.

But this seemingly cozy relationship is now under scrutiny. Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut, has launched an investigation into whether the HRDI allows certain companies to buy access to hospital executives who can influence what supplies or services are bought by their hospitals. If that's the case, hospitals may not be getting the best deals, in terms of quality or cost, he said.

"At the very least it suggests insider dealings -- an insidious, incestuous, insider system," Blumenthal told the Times.

So far, Blumenthal has issued more than 100 subpoenas, mostly to hospital suppliers.


Mutated Gene Causes Common Form of Dementia

A mutated gene linked to an inherited form of a common type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD) has been identified by Canadian and American scientists.

They found that a mutated progranulin gene on chromosome 17 can cause inherited FTD, the Canadian Press reported.

FTD causes about 15 percent of all dementia cases worldwide, and about half of FTD cases are inherited. Alzheimer's disease is the only other type of dementia more common than FTD.

"The immediate implications are that we can now begin to offer genetic counseling and genetic testing for affected families," researcher Dr. Ian Mackenzie, a neuropathologist at the University of British Columbia, told the CP.

"And perhaps even the more important slightly long-term goal is that the knowledge we've gained has very strong implications for possible treatment strategies," Mackenzie added.

FTD is incurable and symptoms typically begin to appear when people are in their 50s and 60s. While it does not destroy memory, FTD causes major changes in personality and behavior.


Medicare Changes Could Cut Payments for Procedures

The Bush administration says current Medicare reimbursement rules encourage hospitals to perform money-making treatments and complex procedures at the expense of cheaper alternatives, The New York Times reported Monday. So, the administration is planning sweeping changes in the rules that critics say would cut funding for some procedures for critically ill patients by up to 30 percent, the newspaper said.

Federal officials say biases in the current system encourage hospitals to treat some patients whose procedures are likely to generate more money for the institutions, at the expense of treating patients whose conditions wind up being less profitable, the newspaper said.

A major change, said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, would be that new payments would be based on the severity of a patient's illness, rather than the current system that reimburses a fixed amount for a person with a particular condition, regardless of its severity.

The new plan, the newspaper said, is not expected to save money, but to "shift around billions of dollars." Medicare now pays about $125 billion a year to nearly 5,000 hospitals.

A group of patient-advocacy organizations wrote the federal government a letter warning that the new system would have "a devastating impact" on payments for treatments for critically ill people, cutting reimbursements for some procedures by as much as 30 percent, the Times said.


Congress to Debate Stem Cell Funding

The controversial issue of whether to use public funds for human embryonic stem cell research tops the hot-button topics to be debated by Congress this week.

President Bush has long opposed use of public monies to fund research involving embryonic stem cells, which proponents say could generate potential cures for diseases including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But the practice is controversial, since the embryos must be destroyed in the process of harvesting stem cells.

Despite polls that suggest as many as 70 percent of Americans support embryonic stem cell research, Bush in 2001 banned the use of federal funding for all but existing stem cell lines, the Associated Press reported. Many scientists complain that stem cells harvested at least five years ago are virtually unusable.

Bush repeatedly has threatened to exercise his first-ever presidential veto if Congress sends him a measure to legalize federally funded human embryonic stem cell research, the AP said.


Critics Say G-8 AIDS Plan Doesn't Go Far Enough

World leaders meeting at the G-8 summit in Russia are calling on the global community to increase funding for more AIDS monitoring and treatment programs, the Associated Press reported.

Advocacy groups welcomed the announcement, but said it was short on specifics. The plan is "an opportunity to get away from this constant cycle of funding shortages and emergency replenishment," said Oliver Buston, a spokesman for the group Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA).

"But we were hoping... for a very detailed, time-bound plan of how the G-8 were going to meet their promise, and this document doesn't really deliver that," Buston said.

The agreement proposed "building the capacity of health-care systems in poor countries through recruitment, training and deployment of public and private health workers." But Eric Friedman, a spokesman for the group Physicians for Human Rights, said the statement didn't say how those goals would be achieved, the AP said.

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