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Health Highlights: July 26, 2006

Japan to Lift Ban on U.S. Beef Imports Dad's Family History Important to Breast Cancer Screening Bird Flu Vaccine Shows Promise Sharon Moved to Intensive Care Unit Pfizer Seeks OK for Stand-Alone Heart Pill Smoking May Boost Alcohol Consumption

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

Japan to Lift Ban on U.S. Beef Imports

Official Japanese government approval will be given Thursday for the resumption of U.S. beef imports, ending a ban imposed earlier this year due to concerns about mad cow disease.

Agriculture ministry official Hiroaki Ogura said government authorization for resumption of U.S. beef imports will be given after a ministry meeting to finalize details, such as when Japan will begin accepting beef shipments, the Associated Press reported.

Only beef from selected U.S. facilities will be allowed into Japan. Inspectors from that country toured 35 U.S. plants to determine whether they met Japanese standards designed to guard against mad cow disease in beef.

A problem was found at one of the plants, which will not be immediately allowed to resume shipments to Japan. A second plant will remain under surveillance because it was found to have previously violated import rules, the AP reported.

The Japanese ban earlier this year came after a veal shipment from the U.S. was found to contain banned animal parts known to carry mad cow disease. A previous two-year ban on U.S. beef was lifted in late 2005.

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Dad's Family History Important to Breast Cancer Screening

When doctors take a woman's family history as part of breast cancer screening, they need to gather thorough information about her father's relatives, too, according to a U.S. study in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Breast cancer cases in the father's family are under-reported in screenings, the researchers said. They analyzed data collected from 800 women and found that 16 percent of them reported breast cancer on their mother's side, compared with 10 percent on their father's side, BBC News reported.

This doesn't match the statistical expectation that a population of women should show an equal percentage of relatives with breast cancer in both their mother's and father's families.

"The most likely explanation for these findings may be underreporting of breast cancer on the paternal side," wrote researchers led by John Quillin of Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Bird Flu Vaccine Shows Promise

More than 80 percent of people given an experimental bird flu vaccine developed by British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC showed a protective immune response, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

Using a very low dose of inactivated virus, subjects were given a special adjuvant -- an added substance used to stimulate an immune response -- along with 3.8 micrograms of inactivated H5N1 bird flu virus. The company said this is the first time such a low dose of inactivated virus has been able to stimulate this large an immune response. The study, conducted in Belgium, involved 400 healthy adults from 18 to 60 years old.

The company said it hopes to make regulatory filings for the vaccine in the coming months.

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Sharon Moved to Intensive Care Unit

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was transferred to the intensive care unit of a Tel Aviv hospital Wednesday after doctors discovered a blood infection.

Sharon, 78, was listed as in a serious but stable condition, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The former Israeli leader, who has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4, was expected to undergo a kind of kidney dialysis, where his blood would be filtered to remove excess fluids that have been accumulating in his body, a spokesman at the Sheba Medical Center Hospital said in a statement. He is also receiving antibiotics intravenously to treat the bacterial infection in his blood.

Sharon's condition had deteriorated significantly earlier in the week, when officials at the medical center said that his kidneys were failing and that they had noticed changes in his brain membrane, the AP reported.

Dr. John Martin, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at London's University College, told the AP that the infection in Sharon's blood indicates that his immune system is weak, and the problem could damage other vital organs, such as the liver.

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Pfizer Seeks OK for Stand-Alone Heart Pill

Drug giant Pfizer, Inc. will apply for approval to sell a new heart treatment as a stand-alone pill, rather than only in combination with Lipitor, the company's best-selling cholesterol treatment, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

The new drug, torcetrapib, is still being tested in clinical trials and could be at least 18 months away from federal approval. Trials so far have shown that torcetrapib, a statin drug, substantially raises the levels of so-called good cholesterol, a novel approach to preventing heart attacks and strokes, and Wall Street analysts say it could become a blockbuster medicine, with sales of several billion dollars annually, the Times reported.

Pfizer's decision reverses a strategy that had drawn criticism from doctors who said the company was putting profits ahead of patients health. Not all patients, doctors complained, can easily switch from one statin to another, and some patients cannot take statins at all. In June 2005, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine criticized Pfizer's strategy. By offering torcetrapib only in a combination pill, Pfizer would have forced patients taking other statins such as Zocor, from Merck to switch to Lipitor if they wanted torcetrapib's benefits, the Times reported.

Pfizer expects to submit an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to sell the combination pill in the second half of 2007, and if the drug trials continue to show good results, the FDA could give its approval for the stand-alone pill by the first half of 2008.

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Smoking May Boost Alcohol Consumption

Smoking may reduce alcohol's effects and promote increased drinking, a U.S. study on rats suggests.

If the same holds true in humans, it may mean that smokers can tolerate drinking more than other people and are therefore at greater risk for alcohol-related problems, BBC News reported.

The rats' blood was tested after they were given varying doses of nicotine and alcohol. The level of alcohol in the rats' blood decreased as their nicotine levels increased.

The researchers said this may be because nicotine somehow delays the movement of alcohol from the stomach into the intestines, which is a major site of absorption for alcohol into the bloodstream.

The findings appear in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Since the desired effect of alcohol is significantly diminished by nicotine -- particularly among heavy- or binge-drinkers such as college students -- this may encourage drinkers to drink more to achieve the pleasurable or expected effect. In other words, cigarette smoking appears to promote the consumption of alcohol," said lead researcher Wei-Jeun Chen, associate professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M Health Science Center.

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