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Health Highlights: March 21 2006

Azerbaijan Reports 5 Deaths from Bird Flu Scientists Identify Gene Linked to Eczema FDA Can Do More to Hasten Drug Approvals: Official Researchers Testing New Ways to Prevent Esophageal Cancer Panel Critical of Guidant

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

Azerbaijan Reports 5 Deaths from Bird Flu

Five human deaths from the H5N1 bird flu virus have been reported in Azerbaijan, bringing the worldwide death toll to 103, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday.

The five victims were among seven people who tested positive for the virus. Some of them may have caught the virus through contact with feathers from infected swans, the Associated Press reported.

"The majority of cases have occurred in females between the ages of 15 and 20 years. In this community, the defeathering of birds is a task usually undertaken by adolescent girls and young women," the WHO said.

In some of the Azerbaijan cases, there is no indication that the infected people had direct exposure to dead or diseased poultry, which has been the usual source of exposure for people who've become infected with the H5N1 virus, the AP reported.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government predicted that bird flu will likely be detected this year in the United States.

Between 75,000 to 100,000 wild birds will be tested for bird flu this year, nearly six times the number tested in 1998, says a government plan that was finalized Monday. The plan also calls for the quarantine and slaughter of any poultry flocks that become infected with the virus, the Associated Press reported.

According to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the wild bird testing could detect 20 to 100 suspected bird flu cases, but dozens of those are likely to be false alarms. Testing will be focused in Alaska and other locations along the Pacific flyway, a common route followed by migratory birds entering the U.S.

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Scientists Identify Gene Linked to Eczema

A gene linked to eczema has been identified by an international team of scientists and the finding may help in the development of new treatments for the common skin condition.

The gene produces a protein called filaggrain, which helps the skin form a protective outer barrier. Reduction or absence of the protein, normally abundant in the outermost layers of skin, results in dry and flaky skin. This study found that about 10 percent of Europeans carry a mutation that switches off this gene.

"It was a really tough project, but because we had experience in this type of gene, we managed to crack it where others had failed," Professor Irwin McLean of the University of Dundee in Scotland, told BBC News. "We see this as the dawn of a new era in the understanding and treatment of eczema and the type of asthma that goes with eczema as well."

The findings appear in the journal Nature Genetics.

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FDA Can Do More to Hasten Drug Approvals: Official

An official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the agency can do more to streamline and modernize its drug approval process.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, FDA deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, said that the agency had made improvements in how it manages drug reviews and approvals but that there are a number of ways to improve the process, the Seattle Times reported.

For example, it may be possible to improve the design of clinical trials so that drug developers can learn more about their drugs in a shorter time.

"Right now, clinical trials are highly empiric, and by that I mean we basically look for statistical results" that show what percentage of patients benefited from the treatment, Gottlieb told the Times.

He suggested that clinical trials could be structured in a way that enables researchers to learn not just what portion of patients might respond to a drug, but which specific type of patients derive the most benefit.

Gottlieb spoke Tuesday at a biotechnology conference in Seattle.

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Researchers Testing New Ways to Prevent Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is the fastest-growing form of cancer in the United States and chronic heartburn may be the reason. Over the last two decades, there's been a six-fold increase in the main type of esophageal cancer. Researchers are trying to determine whether it's possible to heal heartburn-related damage to the esophagus in order to prevent cancer, the Associated Press reported.

About three million Americans are believed to have some form of esophageal damage that's caused by severe acid reflux and puts them at increased risk for esophageal cancer. An estimated 14,550 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease this year. Only about 16 percent of them will survive five years.

Currently, high-risk surgery to cut out sections of the esophagus damaged by acid reflux is the only proven method of preventing esophageal cancer.

Researchers are trying to develop new methods including: radiofrequency energy to burn away the damage; freezing away the damaged tissue; and photodynamic therapy that uses a laser in combination with a light-sensitizing drug, the AP reported.

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Panel Critical of Guidant

The Guidant Corporation systematically failed to fully assess patient safety when it was deciding whether to alert the public about problems with one of its implantable heart defibrillator models, said an expert panel commissioned by the company.

Last year, it was revealed that Guidant had known about an electrical flaw in the defibrillator model for three years, but had failed to alert doctors or the public. At least seven people died due to defibrillator failures caused by the electrical defect.

In a report released Monday, the 12-member panel said Guidant's decisions about how to address or disclose product flaws were influenced by statistical projections from engineers instead of doctors' opinions about the medical consequences of those problems, The New York Times reported.

Guidant said that it did not notify doctors or patients about the electrical flaw in the defibrillator because the device met all engineering projections. Going public about the problem might cause more patient harm than good by leading to unnecessary surgery to remove the devices and replace them, the company argued.

The panel rejected that stance.

"The Independent Panel believes that under no circumstances should a potential or manifest risk of a preventable death be superseded by statistical analysis that indicate that performance remains within general guidelines."

The panel recommended that Guidant appoint an outside committee of doctors and other experts to regularly monitor the safety of the company's devices. The committee would also advise Guidant about when and how to notify doctors and patients about problems with medical devices, The Times reported.

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