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Health Highlights: July 9, 2007

Study to Examine Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Eye Disease in Preemies Switzerland Approves New Kind of Brain Cancer Treatment Indonesia Confirms 81st Bird Flu Death FDA Approves Skin Patch for Alzheimer's Patients China Suspends Sale of Leukemia Drug

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

Study to Examine Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Eye Disease in Preemies

U.S. researchers are about to begin a study to examine whether omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent a disease that causes eye damage in premature babies.

The condition, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), affects about 16,000 infants in the United States each year and blinds hundreds, the Associated Press reported.

This study will investigate whether adding omega-3 fatty acids to premature babies' intravenous feedings can decrease the risk of ROP-related eye damage. The research is being led by Dr. Lois Smith, an ophthalmologist at Children's Hospital Boston.

Normally, mothers pass omega-3s onto their unborn children during the third trimester, a period of rapid eye development. But premature babies miss out on most or all of that omega-3 transfer, the AP reported.

In a study published last month in the journal Nature Medicine, Smith and her colleagues reported that a diet high in omega-3s reduced retinal disease by half among mice that had their retinas damaged in a way that mimicked ROP.

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Switzerland Approves New Kind of Brain Cancer Treatment

A new kind of treatment for brain cancer has been approved for commercial use in Switzerland, U.S. maker Northwest Biotherapeutics Inc. said Monday. It's the first time this kind of treatment -- which primes a patient's immune system to attack cancer cells -- has received market approval, the company said.

The personalized therapeutic vaccine, called DCVax-Brain, will be available to patients in certain hospitals and medical centers in Switzerland before the end of September, Agence France-Presse reported.

For the treatment, a patient's master immune cells (dendritic cells) are taken from the bloodstream while they're still immature. While the cells mature in a laboratory dish, they're exposed to biomarkers from the patient's own tumor. This programs the immune cells to recognize the cancer enemy. When they're mature, the immune cells are injected back into the patient's body, AFP reported.

Data from an ongoing clinical study showed that patients treated with DCVax-Brain survived twice as long (33 months or more) as patients who received a placebo. On average, patients with brain cancer live 14.6 months after diagnosis.

Unlike chemotherapy, DCVax-Brain does not cause debilitating side effects, according to Northwest Biotherapeutics.

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Indonesia Confirms 81st Bird Flu Death

Indonesia's bird flu death toll increased to 81 after a 6-year-old boy died over the weekend, Agence France-Presse reported.

A health ministry official said Monday that tests confirmed that the boy was infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus. The boy, identified only by the initials FZ, was from the industrial town of Cilegon, located 72 kilometers (50 miles) west of the capital Jakarta.

The boy developed symptoms on July 1 and was admitted to a local hospital four days later. He was then transferred to Jakarta's Sulianti Saroso hospital, the country's main center for treating bird flu patients, AFP reported.

The health ministry official said it's not clear whether the boy had contact with dead or infected poultry.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 317 people worldwide and 191 of them have died. Indonesia has reported 102 cases of infection and 81 deaths, the highest of any country.

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FDA Approves Skin Patch for Alzheimer's Patients

Swiss drug maker Novartis AG says its Exelon skin patch for treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, AFX News reported Monday. The drug itself received FDA approval last year.

The once-daily patch offers continuous drug delivery for 24 hours and provides a novel approach to Alzheimer's treatment, according to Novartis.

The company said the efficacy of the Exelon patch is similar to that of the highest doses of Exelon capsules and provides significant improvements in patients' memory and ability to perform everyday activities, compared to a placebo. Novartis also said the patch minimizes gastrointestinal side effects caused by the oral form of the drug, AFX News reported.

The Exelon patch is expected to be available in the United States soon, Novartis said.

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China Suspends Sale of Leukemia Drug

In the aftermath of a series of scandals involving corruption in its drug industry, China's version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced it is suspending the sale of a drug used to treat acute leukemia and rheumatoid arthritis.

The Associated Press reports that China's State Food and Drug Administration announced Saturday on its Web site that it had suspended the sale of methotrexate made by Hualian Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd of Shanghai.

In the past few months, the United States, which imports thousands of Chinese-made products, has announced suspensions of a number of items, ranging from toothpaste to fish.

And, reports the A.P., China has started to respond in the most stringent way possible by cracking down on safety issues and corruption in its many exporting enterprises. A former department head at the State Food and Drug Administration has sentenced to death after having been found guilty of taking bribes, the wire service reports.

Additionally, during the past year, five drug makers have had their licenses suspended, and 128 others had been penalized, the A.P. said.

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