Health Highlights: June 3, 2007

China Attacks U.S. Toothpaste Warning Disciplined Docs Run Drug Trials for Pharmacy Companies: Report Protein May Predict Melanoma's Recurrence Assisted-Suicide Advocate Kevorkian Released From Prison Dutch Kidney Transplant Show Was a Hoax

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

China Attacks U.S. Toothpaste Warning

China's main food safety regulator has rejected a U.S. government warning that consumers should avoid toothpaste made in that country because it may contain a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze.

Calling a Friday warning by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "unscientific, irresponsible and contradictory," China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said late Saturday that low levels of the chemical have been deemed safe for consumption.

In a statement posted on its Web site, the China agency added that lists of ingredients of toothpaste exported to the United States, showing the amount of all chemicals including diethylene glycol, are provided to the FDA for inspection and approval, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. warning Friday also included an import ban on all toothpaste made in China, Deborah M. Autor, director of the FDA's Office of Compliance, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, told reporters at an afternoon briefing.

"The companies will have to prove that their products don't contain harmful levels of DEG (diethylene glycol) before it is allowed into the United States," she added.

There have been no reports of poisoning from DEG in toothpaste, Autor said. "However, the agency is concerned about chronic exposure to DEG and exposure in children and individuals with kidney or liver disease," she added.

The agency began its investigation after it discovered DEG-contaminated toothpaste from China had been sold in Panama. In addition, DEG in cold medicine killed at least 51 people and sickened 68 others in Panama last year.

The Chinese agency's statement also demanded that "the U.S. clarify the facts in a scientific manner as soon as possible and properly handle the issue."


Disciplined Docs Run Drug Trials for Pharmacy Companies: Report

Doctors who have been disciplined by medical boards still oversee drug-testing trials and are paid by pharmaceutical companies for their work, a newspaper analysis revealed.

A study of Minnesota state medical board records showed that more than 100 such doctors, at least two of whom have criminal fraud convictions, received a total of $1.7 million from drug makers from 1997 to 2005, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Minnesota is the only state to make its records publicly available, but the newspaper cited experts as saying the problem was national. The Times reports that medical ethicists say doctors who give experimental medicines should be chosen with care. And, it adds, the drug industry's own guidelines for clinical trials state, "Investigators are selected based on qualifications, training, research or clinical expertise in relevant fields."

The sanctions by the Minnesota state medical board ranged from reprimands to demands for retraining to suspension of licenses. Of 103 doctors, 39 had been penalized for inappropriate prescribing practices, 21 for substance abuse, 12 for substandard care and three for mismanagement of drug studies. A few cases received national news media coverage, but drug makers hired the doctors anyway, the analysis showed.

As one example, the newspaper cited Dr. Faruk Abuzzahab, who it said was accused a decade ago by the Minnesota board of a "reckless, if not willful, disregard" for the welfare of 46 patients, five of whom died in his care or shortly afterward. Abuzzahab's license was suspended for seven months and restricted for two years more, but the Minneapolis psychiatrist has been paid by at least a dozen drug companies for clinical trials or marketing since then, the newspaper reported.

In an interview with the newspaper, Abuzzahab dismissed the findings as "without heft" and said drug makers were aware of his record. He said he had helped study many of the most popular drugs in psychiatry, including Paxil, Prozac, Risperdal, Seroquel, Zoloft and Zyprexa.


Protein May Predict Melanoma's Recurrence

Melanoma patients with higher levels of a protein called S-100 in their blood may run a higher risk of having the potentially deadly skin cancer return, a new study says.

The study tested serum samples from 103 patients who were treated with high-dose interferon, a standard therapy for melanoma; the patients had been treated eight years earlier, on average. The disease recurred in 64 of the patients within an average of 30 months. When the researchers examined levels of S-100 in the serum samples, they found that the higher the level of the protein, the greater likelihood the patient's disease had returned.

"Melanoma patients who initially respond well to treatment with interferon are at high risk of their cancer recurring," said Dr. John Kirkwood, principal investigator of the study and a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the school's Melanoma Center. "We know that only 30 percent of these patients benefit from treatment long-term. The goal of our study was to identify better predictors of who will benefit most from treatment with interferon and who is most at risk of their cancer returning."

The study also found that patients who survived longer showed increased evidence of an autoimmune response to treatment with interferon.

The study findings were to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, in Chicago.

"With further study, we hope to learn more about the role of S-100 in melanoma survival," said Joseph Stuckert, a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was to present the study at the meeting. "S-100 may be an important key to better stratifying patients into those more or less likely to relapse."

The next step in the research, Stuckert said, is to identify factors that may make patients more likely to develop autoimmunity and to further examine the role of S-100 as a potential biomarker for melanoma.

Malignant melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer. Nearly 60,000 new cases of melanoma are expected in 2007, and 8,100 deaths are expected to occur.

The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Cancer Institute.


Assisted-Suicide Advocate Kevorkian Released From Prison

Calling it "wonderful" and "one of the highlights of my life," 79-year-old Jack Kevorkian, the so-called "Dr. Death" who claims to have helped more than 130 terminally ill people commit assisted suicide, was released from a Michigan prison Friday after serving an eight-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Kervorkian, a former doctor and outspoken advocate of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, had been convicted for his role in the death of a terminally ill Waterford Township, Mich., man.

His release drew no protesters. Kevorkian declined to speak to reporters before entering a van and driving away with his lawyer, Mayer Morganroth; CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace; and three supporters, the Detroit News reported.

Kevorkian, who will be on parole for two years, is scheduled to appear on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday night, and CNN's Larry King Live on Monday. He spoke with Wallace on Friday in a Battle Creek hotel, and reiterated his promise not to assist in any more suicides, or advise anyone how to do it, the newspaper said.

During the 1990s, Kevorkian challenged authorities to make his actions on behalf of the terminally ill legal -- or try to stop him. He burned state orders against him and showed up in court in costume, the Associated Press said.

"You think I'm going to obey the law? You're crazy," he said in 1998 shortly before he was accused -- and later convicted -- of murder after injecting lethal drugs into a 52-year-old man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Kevorkian had videotaped the man's death and sent it to 60 Minutes.


Dutch Kidney Transplant Show Was a Hoax

A Dutch reality TV show in which a terminally ill woman would choose one of three contestants to receive one of her kidneys was a hoax, the organizers said.

Those responsible for the "Big Donor Show" on the BNN network said they were trying to draw attention to the shortage of organ donors in the Netherlands.

The show was supposed to feature a 37-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumor. She was to interview the three contestants, along with their families and friends, then decide who would get one of her kidneys before she died, the Associated Press reported.

But shortly before the controversial program was to air, Patrick Lodiers of the "Big Donor Show" said the woman was not actually dying of a brain tumor and the entire exercise was intended to put pressure on the Dutch government and raise awareness of the need for organ donations, the AP said.

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