Health Highlights: March 19, 2009

Food Industry Safety Checks Under Fire Study Offers Clues to Epilepsy in Some Alzheimer's Patients FDA Panel Backs Heart Drug Multaq U.S. Won't Prosecute Legal Medical Marijuana Distributors

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

Food Industry Safety Checks Under Fire

A House Energy and Commerce Investigations subcommittee released new pictures and documents it says show the food industry's self-policing policies failed to catch unsanitary conditions at the peanut processing plant responsible for a nationwide salmonella outbreak. The incident sickened almost 700 people and is being blamed for at least nine deaths, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Dozens of companies that bought peanut paste and other ingredients from Peanut Corp., which is under criminal investigation in connection with the outbreak, failed to pick up the problems because they relied on safety audits by inspectors hired by Peanut Corp. "There is an obvious and inherent conflict of interest when an auditor works for the same supplier it is evaluating," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee, calling it a "cozy relationship," the AP reported.

Thursday's hearing was held as calls for major changes in the U.S. food safety system grew louder, from consumer groups, politicians, and even the head of Kellogg Co. He called for an overhaul of policing policies after the cereal maker lost $70 million in the salmonella outbreak when it had to recall millions of products, the AP reported. David Mackay, Kellogg's chief executive, said companies should be required to have written safety plans and submit to annual inspections.

Last week, President Barack Obama launched a special review of food safety programs, and lawmakers have introduced legislation to take safety oversight away from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and create a new agency with stronger powers and more funding, the AP reported.


Study Offers Clues to Epilepsy in Some Alzheimer's Patients

Tests in mice show why about a third of Alzheimer's patients develop epilepsy, say researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

They found that Alzheimer's-related amyloid clumps that form in the brain increase the sensitivity of nerve cells, making them prone to seizures, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

If the same thing is found in humans, some Alzheimer's patients will need different types of drugs. Currently, a class of drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors are widely used to treat Alzheimer's patients, BBC News reported.

The drugs halt the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with memory. However, these drugs also increase the risk of seizure. To complicate matters, drugs that control seizures can worsen Alzheimer's symptoms.

New drugs that can treat both problems need to be developed, said researcher Professor Tibor Harkany, BBC News reported.


FDA Panel Backs Heart Drug Multaq

The drug Multaq should be approved for sale in the United States to treat the common heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended Wednesday.

In 2006, the FDA rejected Multaq due to a study that found the drug increased the risk of death and cardiovascular problems. Drug maker Sanofi-Aventis SA was told to conduct an additional study, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The new study found that patients taking Multaq had a 24 percent decrease in the combined risk of hospitalization for heart problems and death from any cause. Last year, Sanofi resubmitted its application for FDA approval of the drug.

In a 10-3 vote, the panel of outside medical experts recommended FDA approval of Multaq, the newspaper reported. The FDA isn't required to approve the drug, but generally follows its advisory panels' recommendations.


U.S. Won't Prosecute Legal Medical Marijuana Distributors

The U.S. Justice Department won't prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries operating legally in more than a dozen states, a decision that represents a major shift from the Bush administration.

Medical marijuana advocates and civil libertarians welcomed the change in federal drug policy, announced Wednesday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Los Angeles Times reported. There had been great speculation about how the Obama administration would handle the issue.

"Whatever questions are left, today's comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington. (Holder is) sending a clear message to the DEA," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Bush administration went after medical marijuana distributors even in states where medical marijuana use was legal for cancer patients and those with chronic pain or other serious conditions.

Holder said the Obama administration will still target people and organizations operating in violation of both federal and state law, the Times reported.

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