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Health Highlights: March 19 2006

Safe Vitamin D Use to Fight Colon Cancer May Have Been FoundBush Officials Participate in Simulated Bioterror Attack ResponseNonprofit Hospitals Get Renewed Congressional Scrutiny Egyptian Woman's Death Attributed to H5N1 Bird Flu Two More U.S. Women Die After Using Abortion Pill

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

Safe Vitamin D Use to Fight Colon Cancer May Have Been Found

Using the properties of vitamin D to fight colon cancer has long been a paradox wrapped in an enigma. Large doses of the vitamin, which is absorbed by humans primarily through exposure to sunlight, are needed to prevent colorectal cancer in its earliest stages.

But high doses of vitamin D also produce high amounts of calcium, which can cause toxicity in the blood. Now, scientists at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center offer research that indicates it might be possible to separate vitamin D's cancer-fighting properties from its other functions.

The study, reported in the latest issue of the journal Molecular Cell, found that mutant forms of the protein that binds to vitamin D in the cell will allow vitamin D to regulate a cancer-causing protein called beta catenin without promoting the calcium for bone development.

"We found that we might be able to separate the two functions at the molecular level, and this raises the possibility that vitamin D can be chemically modified into a drug that will only have anticancer effects," said Stephen Byers, an adjunct professor in Georgetown's departments of oncology and cell biology and co-author of the study in a press release.

But Byers also warned that such a drug would not be a cure for colon cancer. "That's because we know that by the time colon cancer is well advanced it fails to respond to vitamin D," he said.


Bush Officials Participate in Simulated Bioterror Attack Response

It was only a drill, but Saturday's exercise on how to respond to a bioterror attack in Washington, D.C. was taken seriously enough to involve many of the Bush administration's Cabinet secretaries.

The Associated Press reports that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were among the Cabinet members who were part of the drill, which simulated an attack using the smallpox virus.

Officially, smallpox is a disease that doesn't exist any more, but its re-emergence as a bioterror agent has been a concern, especially since the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks that killed 5 people in the United States.

The United States resumed smallpox vaccinations for some military personnel after the anthrax attacks.

The A.P. quotes White House spokeswoman Dana Perino as saying, "The purpose of this exercise, which was only a drill, was to address the federal government's response to a potential smallpox attack... we do not have any concern that a smallpox attack is imminent."


Nonprofit Hospitals Get Renewed Congressional Scrutiny

Members of the U.S. Congress who have oversight into charitable institutions have begun to take a look at whether nonprofit hospitals are doing enough charity work.

The New York Times reports that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, is expanding his committee's oversight of tax exempt organizations such as the United Way and American Red Cross to the operations of nonprofit hospitals to determine whether those medical institutions' tax exempt status is justified.

The goal would be for the government to adopt legislation that would clarify and enforce tax exempt standards for nonprofit hospitals, the Times reports. The newspaper quotes the U.S commissioner of internal revenue Mark Everson as saying that federal tax officials have often found little difference between nonprofit and for-profit hospitals "in their operations, their attention to the benefit of the community or their levels of charity care."

The question of reviewing nonprofit hospitals' tax exempt status was begun in 2005 by U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Thomas contends that "less and less has been required for hospitals to maintain tax-exempt status" since 1969, the newspaper reports.


Egyptian Woman's Death Attributed to H5N1 Bird Flu

A day after Israel confirmed its first outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu, initial tests on the body of an Egyptian woman indicate the same disease killed her.

The Associated Press reports that a spokesman for the World Health Organization attributed the death, which occurred Friday, to the H5N1 strain. The official said that many people who had been in contact with the woman were also being tested to see if they were ill. But there were no indications that the virus had been transmitted to the human victim by another human, a possibility health officials believe could lead to a worldwide pandemic.

WHO statistics put the number of human deaths at 97, excluding the Egyptian woman, since avian flu was first discovered in 2003, the wire service reported. Two-thirds of those deaths have occurred in Indonesia and Vietnam, the A.P. cites the WHO as saying.

Meanwhile, according to Radio Israel, the Agriculture Ministry confirmed that H5N1 caused the deaths of more than 11,000 turkeys on two farms in the Negev Desert and another farm near Jerusalem.

Israeli officials have ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of turkeys and imposed quarantines around all three farms as part of the effort to control the spread of the virus, the Associated Press reported.

Five people have been admitted to hospitals and are being observed for symptoms of bird flu, but officials said they did not think the patients had contracted the disease.

The H5N1 virus was detected in Egypt last month and it's possible that the disease may have entered Israel from that country, said Israeli Agriculture Minister Zeev Boim.


Two More U.S. Women Die After Using Abortion Pill

Two more women have died after using the RU-486 abortion pill, U.S. health regulators said Friday in warning doctors to watch for a rare but deadly infection implicated in earlier deaths of four others who used the pill.

Since 2000, at least six women in the United States have died after taking RU-486, but the Food and Drug Administration can't prove the drug was to blame in any of those cases, the Associated Press reported.

In four cases in California, women who took the pill died from sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream. Those women did not follow FDA-approved instructions for using the drug.

The FDA statement also emphasized that abortion providers should stick to the officially approved regimen when giving RU-486, Mifeprex, and an accompanying drug, misoprostol, The New York Times reported.

The FDA instructions call for women to swallow three tablets of Mifeprex, followed by two tablets of misoprostol two days later. In the California cases, the final two tablets were inserted vaginally instead of being swallowed by the women. This "off-label" use does not have FDA approval but is widely recommended by abortion clinics, the AP reported.

The FDA said it hasn't confirmed the cause of death in the two latest cases, but an agency spokeswoman told the AP that the circumstances and symptoms matched those of the California cases.

Mifeprex has been used in more than 500,000 medical abortions in the United States since its approval in September 2000.


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