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Health Highlights: June 14, 2006

Conjoined Twins Separated After Difficult Operation Investigators: NIH Worker Allegedly Profited From Tissue Samples HHS Chief Uses Emergency Jet for Meetings: Newspaper Bid to Prevent Hospital Errors Has Saved Thousands, Director Says KFC Sued Over Trans Fats in Recipes

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

Conjoined Twins Separated After Difficult Operation

Conjoined twins, attached from the chest to the pelvis and who shared internal organ function, were separated late Wednesday by a surgical team at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

The Associate Press reports that 10-month-old Regina and Renata Salinas Fierros were finally separated as the pelvic bone was cut shortly before 6:30 p.m. PT. The procedure had lasted more than 12 hours and was especially difficult, the wire service said, because doctors had to devise a way to separate the liver, bladder and genitalia so that each child could function on her own.

The surgical team was to spend the rest of the night reconstructing the girls' pelvises and chest cavities, hospital spokesman Steve Rutledge said.

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Investigators: NIH Worker Allegedly Profited From Tissue Samples

A senior researcher at the U.S. National Institutes of Health may have profited by at least $285,000 from the transfer of human tissue samples in what appears to be a violation of agency ethics rules, House investigators told the Associated Press.

The investigators said the transfer of the samples to the drug giant Pfizer would not have been approved had agency permission been sought by Dr. Trey Sunderland, an Alzheimer's disease expert at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The arrangement raises questions about lax oversight at the agency, the investigators told the wire service.

Sunderland, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch at the NIMH, asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination Wednesday by refusing to testify at congressional hearings on the allegations.

He's been under congressional scrutiny before, the AP said. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has investigated allegations that Sunderland received $517,000 since 1999 in consulting fees or expense reimbursements from Pfizer without any record of agency approval for those payments, the wire service reported.

The latest probe centers on investigators' belief that there were "reasonable grounds" that $285,000 of the $517,000 Sunderland received from Pfizer stemmed from giving the company access to spinal fluid and plasma samples in connection with Pfizer's work on an Alzheimer's drug, the AP said.

"Federal laws and policies do not permit NIH scientists to profit personally from their jobs and their patients by providing irreplaceable government assets," Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) told the wire service. Whitfield chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigation subcommittee.

An attorney for Sunderland, Robert Muse, said his client "didn't receive a dime for providing anything to Pfizer. He received fees for consulting as well as for lectures. These were known to NIH and they were permitted under NIH rules," Muse told the AP.

The transfer of tissue samples was done under a 1998 material transfer agreement between the NIMH and Pfizer, the AP reported. A company spokesman could not be reached for immediate comment, the wire service said.

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HHS Chief Uses Emergency Jet for Meetings: Newspaper

A private jet reserved for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cases of emergency has been used by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to attend news conferences and meetings across the country, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Wednesday.

While the CDC says it has used the jet for three emergencies since January, Leavitt has used the Gulfstream III jet on 19 trips to more than 90 cities, his spokeswoman told the newspaper. Most of Leavitt's trips, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $700,000, were to promote the new Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors, the newspaper said.

In two cases, CDC officials responding to emergencies were forced to use other planes because Leavitt was using the CDC jet, the Journal-Constitution said.

A Leavitt spokeswoman defended his use of the plane, saying the trips complied with federal guidelines. Before 2006, Leavitt typically took commercial jets, as other cabinet members say they do frequently, the newspaper reported.

Last fall, Congress authorized Leavitt to use the jet at his discretion because of the nature of his work during emergencies and "significant events," the newspaper said.

Leavitt was unavailable to respond to the newspaper's story, it said.

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Bid to Prevent Hospital Errors Has Saved Thousands, Director Says

More than 122,000 lives have been saved at U.S. acute care facilities in the past 18 months because of a national campaign to prevent hospital errors, the program's director said Wednesday.

Some 3,100 institutions participated in the effort, led by Harvard Professor Dr. Donald Berwick, who announced the results Wednesday at an Atlanta hospital conference. The campaign focused on better protection against drug errors, preventing post-surgical infections, and deployment of emergency rapid-response teams, the Associated Press reported.

Participating hospitals, which represented about three-quarters of the nation's acute care beds, were asked to send Berwick their mortality data for analysis, the AP said.

A widely publicized 1999 report estimated that up to 98,000 Americans die each year due to hospital errors and substandard care, the wire service said.

Separately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday it was launching a new bid to prevent drug errors caused by unclear abbreviations used in doctors' prescriptions. As an example, the agency said the abbreviation for international units (IU) was easily mistaken for the abbreviation for intravenous (IV).

The FDA said it would produce a series of brochures, posters and public service advertisements aimed at doctors. More than 7,000 Americans die each year due to medication errors, the agency said.

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KFC Sued Over Trans Fats in Recipes

A public advocacy group is suing KFC over the ongoing use of trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils in the company's fried chicken recipes, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants to either get a ban on KFC's use of the fatty oils or force the company to tell customers that trans fats can cause heart disease, the newspaper said.

The suit was brought in District of Columbia Superior Court and a decision would be binding only in Washington, the newspaper said.

Scientists consider trans fats among the most unhealthy of all fats. About 80 percent of those found in the average American's diet come from partially hydrogenated oils, the Times said.

KFC issued a statement calling the lawsuit "completely without merit." The firm noted that complete nutrition information for its products was available in its restaurants and on its Web site.

"We have been reviewing alternative oil options, but there are a number of factors to consider including maintaining KFC's unique taste and flavor of Colonel Sanders' Original Recipe," the statement continued.

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