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Health Highlights: June 9, 2014

Scientists Recruit Healthy Seniors for Alzheimer's Drug Trial Long Waits Common for VA Medical Appointments: Audit Expansion of Drug Discount Program Struck Down by Judge Protective Blanket Offers Tornado Defense: Company

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

Scientists Recruit Healthy Seniors for Alzheimer's Drug Trial

Scientists have started recruiting seniors from the United States, Canada and Australia to participate in a $140 million study that will test the protective powers of an experimental drug for Alzheimer's disease.

Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Eli Lilly & Co. and others, will give roughly 1,000 volunteers either solanezumab or a placebo, according to the Associated Press. They will then track any changes in memory or amyloid levels over the course of three years.

Lilly makes solanezumab, which is designed to help catch amyloid before it builds into the brain plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's, the AP reported.

In earlier research, solanezumab seemed to help slow mental decline in patients with mild disease, but it was not able to stop or reverse full-blown Alzheimer's in its tracks. So, scientists wondered if it might work in people who showed silent signs that they were at risk for Alzheimer's but who hadn't yet shown any symptoms of the disease, the wire service reported.

"We have to get them at the stage when we can save their brains," lead researcher Dr. Reisa Sperling, of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told the AP.

The scientists will scan the brains of thousands of older volunteers to find those with a sticky build-up of beta amyloid, which is believed to play a key role in development of Alzheimer's.

But before any brain scans take place, there will be tests to determine that a volunteer's thinking skills and memory are normal, the AP reported. The volunteers will also be given psychological tests to determine whether they can handle learning what their amyloid levels are.

The study will also offer scientists the opportunity to get a better handle on how amyloid works.

"Amyloid we know is a huge risk factor, but someone can have a head full of amyloid and not decline" mentally, Sperling said. "We need to understand more about why some brains are resilient and some are not."

About 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's, but that number is expected to rise rapidly as the baby boomers age. Alzheimer's affects one in nine people over age 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association.


Long Waits Common for VA Medical Appointments: Audit

A Veterans Affairs Department audit released Monday says that more than 57,000 veterans have been waiting for up to three months for appointments at VA health facilities, and another 64,000 who enrolled for VA care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor.

The analysis of 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics revealed that veterans nationwide had long wait times for first appointments with both primary care doctors and specialists, the Associated Press reported.

Due to poor planning and growing demand for VA services, a 14-day target for appointment waiting times is "not attainable," according to the audit. It said the 2011 decision by VA officials to set that target and then to base bonuses on meeting it was "an organizational leadership failure."

The audit also found that 13 percent of VA schedulers said they were told by supervisors or others to falsify appointment dates in order to meet on-time performance goals. And about 8 percent of schedulers said they used alternatives to an official electronic waiting list, often in response to pressure to make waiting times appear shorter, the AP reported.

The findings reveal "systemic problems" that require prompt action, according to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson. He said VA officials have contacted 50,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics and are in the process of contacting 40,000 more veterans.

The audit provides the first nationwide overview of VA health services since the controversy began two months ago with reports of patients dying while waiting for medical appointments at the Phoenix VA center and cover-ups at the facility, the AP reported.

The uproar led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on May 30. He accepted responsibility for what he called the "lack of integrity" in the VA health system.


Expansion of Drug Discount Program Struck Down by Judge

The Obama administration is reviewing a federal judge's decision to strike down a new rule requiring drug makers to offer certain medicines at discounted prices, but has not yet decided whether to appeal.

In his ruling issued in late May, Judge Rudolph Contreras said the White House had no authority to issue the rule and issued an injunction blocking the requirement, The New York Times reported.

The decision in a lawsuit filed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America could provide a financial windfall to drug companies, according to federal officials.

"The court decision will have a devastating impact on rural hospitals and free-standing cancer hospitals, which will pay a lot more for expensive drugs," Ted Slafsky, the president of Safety Net Hospitals for Pharmaceutical Access, which represents hospitals participating in the drug discount program, told The Times.

Last week, the biotechnology company Genentech said it had halted discounts on some medicines sold to hospitals newly eligible for the program. Genentech is owned by Roche.

The drug industry said the White House was trying to stretch the Affordable Care Act to give more people discounts on more drugs, and that the rule was "inconsistent with the plain language of the statute," The Times reported.


Protective Blanket Offers Tornado Defense: Company

A protective blanket could help shield students against flying debris when tornados strike or against bullets from handguns, according to the Oklahoma company that developed the product.

ProTecht's Bodyguard Blanket is 5/16 of an inch thick and has backpack-like straps that people use to put it on, and then take cover. The blanket became available about a week ago, the Associated Press reported.

The blanket features Dyneema, a high-density plastic that's used for ballistic armor and is lighter than Kevlar. The blankets cost $1,000 each, but buying one for each student would be a cheaper than building a tornado shelter, according to ProTecht.

"By no means would we ever say that this is more protective," blanket developer and company executive Steve Walker told the AP. "But when you have budget constraints, this might be a viable alternative."

Tests also showed that the blanket can protect against bullets from 9 mm and .22-caliber handguns.

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