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Health Highlights: March 21, 2002

Latest Study Confirms Tamoxifen Helps Prevent Breast Cancer, But Side Effects Still A Concern Menopause? What Menopause? A Risk Test for Alzheimer's New Breast Cancer Vaccine Being Tested in Europe WHO Sanctions Generic Drugs to Treat AIDS Brain Training Could Alleviate Tinnitus

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

Latest Study Confirms Tamoxifen Helps Prevent Breast Cancer, But Side Effects Still A Concern

A large European study of the drug tamoxifen supports U.S. assertions that the drug can help to prevent breast cancer, but the study found the drug helps only in about a third of cases. This leaves open the ongoing debate of whether the risks are worth the benefits for women who don't already have cancer.

The study, presented this week at the Third European Breast Cancer Conference in Barcelona, Spain, followed 7,000 healthy women at risk for developing breast cancer over four years. The findings showed that the drug indeed prevented cancer in about 35 percent of cases, reports the Associated Press.

But the potential side effects are plenty: the most serious is that tamoxifen can double or triple the risk of developing a life-threatening blood clot, and the drug doubles the risk of cancer of the lining of the womb.

Doctors widely agree that the benefits of preventing a recurrence do indeed exceed the risks for women who already have had breast cancer, but because of the risks to otherwise healthy women, the international group of medical experts who prepared the study say they cannot join American scientists in recommending tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention in healthy women.

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Menopause? What Menopause?

Many women dread entering menopause, but new research shows that as many as half undergo the experience for at least a year before they even notice things are changing.

A British survey found that one in four women go as long as three years before noticing the symptoms of menopause, reports the BBC.

In addition, nearly half of the women surveyed reported waiting more than a year before going to their doctor for help with symptoms and a third had not seen a doctor at all.

Even when they do seek medical assistance, one in 10 cancels the appointment out of concern that she's wasting the doctor's time, the survey shows.

Experts say ignoring menopause symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats can leave women vulnerable to a host of conditions, including osteoporosis and high blood pressure.

The survey was conducted by The Choices Campaign, which is conducted by the hormone replacement therapy Aware Group.

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A Risk Test for Alzheimer's

American scientists may be on their way to developing an early warning test for Alzheimer's disease, the devastating brain disorder, reports HealthDay.

Currently, there's no definitive exam to determine if a person has Alzheimer's disease. The only concrete proof comes after the patient has died and an autopsy is performed to confirm the presence of protein "plaques" in the brain.

In the new study, published in the latest issue of Science, researchers looked at 49 mice with a gene mutation that causes them to develop brain plaques. The gene defect is similar to a mutation found in some families with a strong history of Alzheimer's.

Normally, there's little amyloid-beta in the blood, mouse or human. However, when the mice were injected with an antibody called m266, amyloid-beta protein fragments flowed from the brain to the blood plasma. Within five minutes, the level of amyloid-beta in the blood plasma increased dramatically, with the amount corresponding closely to the amount of amyloid plaque build-up in the brain, according to the researchers.

They believe this antibody test could be a way to pinpoint which people have build-ups of amyloid-beta protein in the brain and may be at risk of having Alzheimer's.

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New Breast Cancer Vaccine Being Tested in Europe

A new breast cancer vaccine is now being tested in a small group of women in Great Britain and Denmark, European researchers disclosed this week.

The announcement was presented this week at the Third European Breast Cancer Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Highlights of the meeting included an "optical detection" system for early diagnosis of breast tumors; a novel way to predict which breast abnormalities will become malignant; a microchip that may help doctors stop invasive breast cancer from developing; a new way of delivering radiation therapy; smart drugs that stop cancer before it starts, and new data on how HRT may affect breast cancer diagnosis, reports HealthDay.

The potential vaccine -- known as Auto-Vac -- targets the tumor growth factor known as HER-2, present in excessive amounts in almost a quarter of all breast cancer patients. Because HER-2 is also found in small amounts in normal tissue, the immune system doesn't recognize the excess as something to be destroyed. This, researchers said, is where the vaccine may help.

"The objective of our vaccine is to stimulate the patient's own immune system, and to see whether we can induce it to launch specific killer cells, as well as producing HER-2 specific antibodies," said Denmark's Dr. Dana Leech, who addressed the international press group.

The new study, which involves 27 women with advanced breast cancer, will involve three injections of the vaccine, with results expected before the end of the year.

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WHO Sanctions Generic AIDS Drugs

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a list of firms that produce safe drugs to treat AIDS, a move that could reduce their costs in poor countries.

The list includes 41 drugs made by eight companies -- among them powerhouses like Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott Laboratories and Roche. But it also includes a three-drug cocktail produced by the Indian manufacturer Cipla, which has said it can treat a patient for a mere $350 a year, reports the Associated Press. In more developed countries, AIDS treatments often cost one patient more than $10,000 annually.

A spokesman for an organization representing the larger companies, the International Federal of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, says the smaller firms don't necessarily produce drugs that meet the same quality assurance standards, which he fears could lead to widespread drug resistance.

The Nobel Prize-winning group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Frontiers) applauds the WHO's move to include generic manufacturers. "In our experience, competition is really the driving force for having a good level of price for developing countries," spokesman Dr. Bernard Pecoul tells the AP. "We cannot only rely on charity."

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Brain Training Could Alleviate Tinnitus

People who have a constant ringing or buzzing in the ears can retrain their brains to effectively reverse the condition, reports BBC News Online.

Nine tinnitus sufferers who taught themselves to distinguish between computer-generated tones that were pitched near to the phantom noises they heard began to experience changes in the brain's auditory cortex, German researchers at the University of Heidelberg found. Exposure to the tones for two hours a day, four days a week was enough to reduce the effects of tinnitus by 35 percent, the researchers report in the journal New Scientist.

They caution that the study was small, and that they're not sure that the brain changes measured would remain permanent.

About 1 percent of the population has such severe tinnitus that it has a debilitating effect on victims' lives, the BBC reports.

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