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Health Highlights: June 12, 2006

FDA OKs Antidepressant to Treat Winter Blues A Better Brew to Fight Prostate Cancer? Diabetes Vision Drug Trials Show Promise Two U.S. Mad Cow Cases May Be a Different Strain Study Shows Caffeine May Block Some Pain During Exercise

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

FDA OKs Antidepressant to Treat Winter Blues

Federal regulators on Monday approved GlaxoSmithKline's antidepressant Wellbutrin XL to help treat the estimated half a million people in the United States who suffer from winter depression.

The U.S. Food and Administration said the drug is the first to be approved to treat the condition, which causes bouts of recurrent depression, and is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Wellbutrin XL (bupropion HCL extended release tablets) had been previously approved for treatment of major depressive disorder.

"The effectiveness of Wellbutrin XL for the prevention of SAD episodes was established in 3 double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in adults with a history of major depressive disorder in autumn and winter," the FDA said in a prepared statement. "Treatment was initiated prior to the onset of symptoms in the autumn (September to November) and was discontinued following a two-week taper that began the first week of spring (fourth week of March). In these trials, the percentage of patients who were depression-free at the end of treatment was significantly higher for those on Wellbutrin XL than for those on placebo; for all 3 studies combined, the overall rate of patients depression-free at the end of treatment was 84 percent for those on Wellbutrin XL compared to 72 percent for those on placebo."

The drug's label includes a "black box" warning on the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in pediatric patients treated with antidepressants.

As sunlight patterns change in autumn and winter, there is a shift in the "biological internal clocks" or circadian rhythms, according to the National Mental Health Association. This can cause your biological clocks to be out of step with normal activities. January and February are the most difficult months for sufferers, and younger persons and women are at higher risk, the association says.

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A Better Brew to Fight Prostate Cancer?

That beer you're holding may contain small amounts of a compound thought to prevent prostate cancer and enlargement, according to an Oregon State University study, but you'd have to drink almost a case to activate its benefits.

Researchers said that xanthohumol, which is found in the hops used to brew beer, belongs to a group of plant compounds called flavonoids that can trigger the death of cancer cells along the surface of the prostate gland, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Fred Stevens, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at OSU's College of Pharmacy, said it may be possible for drug companies to develop pills containing concentrated doses of the flavonoid and to increase the xanthohumol content of hops. The Oregon study findings were published in a recent issue of Cancer Letters.

German scientists have already developed a beer that contains 10 times the amount of xanthohumol as traditional brews. The drink is being marketed as a healthy beer, the AP said, but research is still under way to determine if it has any effect on cancer.

Still, there should no rush to belly up to the bar, according to the head of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition. "It's every mans dream to hear that beer and pizza can prevent cancer," said Dr. Richard N. Atkins in a prepared statement. "However, the 17 beers and four large pizzas needed to get enough xanthohumol and lycopene to help prevent prostate cancer is unfortunately not advised. Our hope is that men know the facts and get tested for prostate cancer. Food, no matter how helpful it may be, is not a full preventive for prostate cancer."

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Diabetes Vision Drug Trials Show Promise

Eli Lilly and Co. says two late-phase trials of its experimental drug Arxxant reduced the risk of vision loss by 42 percent among patients with serious eye problems caused by diabetes. The drug, which is awaiting federal approval, could bring Lilly an estimated $1 billion a year, The Indianapolis Star reported Monday.

Since no drug currently treats the disorder, called diabetic retinopathy, the typical current treatment uses laser surgery in advanced stages of the illness.

Dr. Louis Vignati, medical director for Lilly's Arxxant product team, told the newspaper that stemming vision loss could improve the quality of life for many diabetics, allowing them to keep driving cars or taking part in other everyday activities.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to speed up its usual one-year review time for Arxxant, since there are no approved treatments for diabetic eye disease.

The drug maker revealed the findings over the weekend at the annual scientific meeting of the American Diabetes Association in Washington, D.C.

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Two U.S. Mad Cow Cases May Be a Different Strain

Two cases of mad cow disease in the United States have caused a stir among scientists, because they don't appear to have followed the usual pattern of development, the Associated Press reports.

The disease, discovered in Texas and Alabama, may be a different strain that appears spontaneously, the wire service quotes scientists as saying. Additionally, the dangerous lesions known as prions weren't detected to act the same way in the U.S. cattle. It is these lesions that deposit the plaque that kills brain cells, but this didn't happen with the two test animals.

There have only been a few cases of mad cow disease reported in the United States, leading government officials in late April to issue a statement that testing and control programs for the disease have been successful. This is in contrast to Europe, where thousands of cattle have been destroyed in the past 25 years.

Although the differences in the disease in the cattle have prompted scientific curiosity, the AP says that U.S. government officials aren't changing any procedures. "It's most important right now, till the science tells us otherwise, that we treat this as BSE regardless," the wire service quotes U.S. Agriculture Department chief veterinarian John Clifford as saying.

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Study Shows Caffeine May Block Some Pain During Exercise

Can caffeine reduce the pain you feel during exercise?

It's a strong possibility, according to a small experiment from researchers at the University of Georgia, who reported their findings during the recent annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Denver.

The Los Angeles Times reports that 9 "college-age" women who weren't regular coffee drinkers participated in a leg exercise routine using their quadriceps muscles. Some of them were given a pill that contained the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee, while the others were given a placebo.

According to the Times, those who took the caffeine pills felt less pain between 25 percent and 48 percent of the time, all depending on which part of the routine they were doing.

Victor Maridakis, the University of Georgia's lead researcher, told the newspaper he believed that caffeine might block brain pain receptors. "Everyone wants that competitive edge," the Times quotes him as saying, "but it's how much you think you can handle and how your body reacts to it."

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