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Health Highlights: July 20, 2009

Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report Walter Cronkite, Legendary TV Journalist, Dead at 92 Hepatitis C Investigation Is Widened Praise for NIH Pick Widespread, But Not Unanimous Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts

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

Experimental Lupus Drug Shows Some Promise: Report

An experimental drug for the autoimmune disease lupus has produced favorable results in a company-sponsored study. It could potentially become the first new drug for lupus in 50 years, USA Today reported.

The drug, Benlysta, helps to limit the immune system response that attacks lupus patients' tissues, often damaging vital organs.

Each of the 865 patients in the preliminary study were given standard therapy for lupus, which consists primarily of treatment with steroids. The researchers found that 52 percent of patients on a low dose of Benlysta and 58 percent of those receiving a high dose of the drug, in tandem with the standard therapy, experienced significant improvement, compared with 43 percent of those taking standard therapy and a placebo, USA Today reported.

Also, more Benlysta patients were able to reduce their dose of steroid, and with it the bloating and other side effects of steroid use, company officials said.

"All of the investigators we've shown [these results to] are just thrilled. They haven't had a good clinical trials result in years. Lupus patients should have some hope, too," said David Stump of Human Genome Sciences Inc., which developed the drug with GlaxoSmithKline.

Stump said the company plans to release the study results at a scientific meeting later this year, USA Today said.


Walter Cronkite, Legendary TV Journalist, Dead at 92

Walter Cronkite, the iconic television journalist often referred to as "the most trusted man in America" during a tumultuous era that included the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the U.S. lunar landing, the Vietnam War and Watergate, died Friday evening at his New York City home after a long illness. He was 92.

As a reporter and eventually the anchorman of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, Cronkite -- with his signature sign-off line, "That's the way it is" -- came to dominate television news like few before him and no one since.

"It's hard to imagine a man for whom I had more admiration," Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes said on CNN. "He was a superb reporter and honorable man."

Cronkite was the one who broke the news to Americans that President John F. Kennedy had been shot Nov. 22, 1963, interrupting a live CBS broadcast of a soap opera.

Five years later, Cronkite returned from a trip to report on the war in Vietnam and declared on television: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate." Then-President Lyndon Johnson, hearing that comment, reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America." Soon afterward, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, CBS News reported.

Cronkite, who also had a passion for the U.S. space program of the 1960s, died just three days before the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, another historic moment linked with his reporting.

"For decades, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted voice in America," said President Barack Obama in a statement. "His rich baritone reached millions of living rooms every night, and in an industry of icons, Walter set the standard by which all others have been judged."


Hepatitis C Investigation Is Widened

An investigation into the spread of the hepatitis C virus by a Colorado hospital worker has been expanded to two other states -- New York and Texas -- where the woman previously worked, the Associated Press reported.

According to Colorado officials, the woman, reportedly addicted to painkillers, took syringes filled with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller, from operating room carts and replaced them with used syringes filled with saline solution. The action is believed to have contaminated not only the swapped syringes but the containers of saline solution, the AP said.

Because of this, the AP said, as many as 6,000 people who had surgery at two medical centers in Denver and Colorado Springs might have been exposed to hepatitis C, and surgical patients at hospitals in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and Houston might have been similarly exposed. The woman reportedly worked in those communities from 2005 to 2008, though it is unclear whether she was infected with hepatitis C at that time.

The woman is being held without bond in Colorado, where a federal grand jury is investigating the claim that she switched the needles despite knowing that she had hepatitis C, the news service said.


Praise for NIH Pick Widespread, But Not Unanimous

Dr. Francis S. Collins, nominated to lead the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is respected by top scientists and research organizations, but praise for President Barack Obama's choice to direct the mammoth health agency isn't universal, The New York Times reported.

While Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, called Collins "an extraordinary scientist and one of the nicest guys you could ever meet," others privately told the newspaper that they're worried about Collins' near-evangelistic embrace of religion.

Numerous times, he has publicly recounted his conversion to Christianity as a medical student in his late 20s, the Times reported. More recently, Collins penned a book called "The Language of God."

Others take issue with his leadership of the NIH's Human Genome Project. While Collins was lauded in 2003 when the program succeeded in its goal to map the billions of base pairs that comprise human DNA, some have soured on the accomplishment, saying it hasn't led to "an array of promising medical interventions," the Times reported.

Collins shouldn't shoulder blame for the genetic research industry's failure to come up with quick medical breakthroughs, the newspaper said, adding, "He played an important role in raising expectations impossibly high." Other critics cited the "extraordinary" cost of the project, the Times reported.

Collins has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale and a medical degree from the University of North Carolina. His confirmation by the U.S. Senate appears likely, the Times said.

The NIH, the world's primary source of medical research funding, is slated to distribute some $37 billion in research grants and spend $4 billion on its own research programs over the next 14 months, the newspaper said.


Swine Flu Vaccine Could Get Scarce: Experts

The United States could find itself short of swine flu vaccine if the virus becomes much more lethal and countries start to scramble for more of the vaccine, experts warn.

They noted that the United States makes only 20 percent of the flu vaccines it uses. The situation is even worse in Britain, which imports all its flu vaccines. Only a few countries are self-sufficient in vaccines.

"This isn't rocket science. If there is more severe disease, countries will want to hang onto the vaccine for their own citizens," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press.

Leaders of countries with adequate supplies of swine flu vaccine won't be willing to share with other nations, experts predict.

"Pandemic vaccine will be a valuable and scarce resource, like oil or food during a famine," David Fidler, an Indiana University law professor who has consulted for the World Health Organization, told the AP. "We've seen how countries behave in those situations, and it's not encouraging."

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