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Health Highlights: March 25 2006

Kidney Drug Can Safely Fight Eczema China Confirms Shanghai Bird Flu Death Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study Testicular Cells May Offer Alternative to Embryonic Stem Cells More Than 27 Million People Now in Medicare Drug Plan

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

Kidney Drug Can Safely Fight Eczema

Tailoring a powerful, immune-suppressing drug to individual patients may bring safe relief to adults and children afflicted with atopic eczema, British researchers report.

As reported by the BBC, The drug, called azathioprine, was first developed 40 years ago to help suppress organ rejection in kidney transplant recipients.

Doctors soon realized it might help subdue painful eczema flare-ups, but the drug's effects on the immune system meant that it has only been used as a last resort, and only in adults.

Now, researchers at the University of Newcastle say they have matched doses of azathioprine to levels of a particular enzyme, called TPMT, in patients' blood.

In a study involving 63 patients, this tailored approach gave patients several months of sustained relief, without major side effects.

"We have shown for the first time that, if we can get the dose right, the safety of the drug improves significantly," researcher Dr. Simon Meggitt, a consultant dermatologist, told the BBC.


China Confirms Shanghai Bird Flu Death

A female migrant worker infected with the H5N1 avian flu strain died Tuesday in Shanghai, Chinese officials confirmed on Saturday. The death is the 11th fatal case of bird flu so far documented in the country, and the first in Shanghai, China's most populous city.

According to the Associated Press, Chinese health officials say blood tests confirmed the woman was infected with the bird flu virus. She was admitted to the hospital with cold and fever symptoms.

Also on Saturday, Indonesian officials said they are awaiting tests to confirm H5N1 infection as the cause of death of a 1-year-old Jakarta girl.

And in Hong Kong, a peregrine falcon found dead in a housing complex has tested positive for H5N1, officials there say. Hong Kong last reported a human case of bird flu in 2003.

So far, bird-to-human transmission of H5N1 has killed more than 100 people worldwide in eight countries, mostly in Asia. Health experts fear a pandemic if the virus ever mutates to a form that could be easily passed between humans.


Sodium Hyaluronate Effective for Chronic Shoulder Pain: Study

The drug sodium hyaluronate -- currently approved in the United States to treat knee osteoarthritis -- is also effective for chronic shoulder pain and may provide an alternative to Vioxx and other Cox-2 inhibitors, according to a Columbia University Medical Center study.

The six-month study of 602 patients found that the drug reduced chronic pain by nearly 50 percent in people with osteoarthritis of the shoulder. The findings were presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in Chicago.

"Chronic shoulder pain is a common problem that cannot be adequately treated with existing FDA-approved therapies," study principal investigator Dr. Theodore Blaine, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia, said in a prepared statement.

"The results of the trial are very encouraging, and we hope will lead to this drug's approval as an effective therapy for thousands of suffering patients," Blaine said.

The FDA is currently reviewing the study's findings.

Vioxx and another Cox-2 painkiller, Bextra, were removed from the market after studies showed they increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.


Testicular Cells May Offer Alternative to Embryonic Stem Cells

Testicular cells may provide an alternative source of cells -- instead of embryonic stem cells -- for growing cells to repair damaged tissue or organs, suggests a German study in the latest online issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers isolated stem cells from adult mouse testes that exhibit properties similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells, New Scientist reported. These testicle-derived cells -- called multipotent adult germline cells -- can be grown into all tissues of the mouse body.

It may be possible to use a simple testicular biopsy to extract these kinds of cells from human males to provide them with a source of genetically matched cells, the researchers said.

"We're in the process of doing this in humans and we're optimistic," research team leader Gerd Hasenfuss, of the Georg-August University of Gottingen, told New Scientist.

If it is possible, this approach would avoid the technical and ethical issues associated with generating stem cells from human embryos left over from fertility treatments. Those embryos have to be destroyed in the process of obtaining stem cells.


More Than 27 Million People Now in Medicare Drug Plan

More than 27 million Medicare beneficiaries are now enrolled in the new prescription drug plan, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said.

Beneficiaries are signing up at the rate of 380,000 per week and more than 1.9 million signed up from mid-February to mid-March, a 25 percent increase over the number of people who signed up over the previous month.

Over the past four months, about 7.2 million people have enrolled individually for the new drug plan.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Thursday that the federal government is well on its way to achieving its goal of 28 million to 30 million enrollees in the first year. The enrollment deadline is May 15.

The new enrollment figures don't impress Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, an independent source of information and assistance for Medicare beneficiaries.

"Sixteen million Americans with Medicare still have no drug coverage -- if the administration's numbers released (Thursday) are accurate. Less than seven million Americans who were uninsured before the drug program was launched are newly insured. On the other hand, six million of the poorest and frailest Americans who lost Medicaid coverage on Jan. 1 now have inferior, less reliable drug coverage," Hayes said in a prepared statement.

He contended that many people who have enrolled in private drug plans under the new Medicare program are angry and dissatisfied.


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