Health Highlights: May 16, 2003

Genetic Flaw May Offer Clues About Schizophrenia Alcohol No Protection Against Parkinson's Body's Response to SARS May Damage Lungs FDA Panel OK's Innovative Asthma Drug U.S. Senate Approves $15B AIDS Bill

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

Genetic Flaw May Offer Clues About Schizophrenia

University of Alberta scientists have found a genetic flaw that may offer more insight into the development of schizophrenia.

The Canadian researchers found a similar genetic flaw in a British mother and daughter from a family with a history of schizophrenia, CBC News Online reports.

This flaw is a break in a large gene on human chromosome 14. The break is on a gene that's in the same family as similar genes that play a role in behavior and memory. The discovery may help direct researchers to other genes that may be a factor in the development of schizophrenia.

It may also help in early detection and treatment of the mental disorder. The study appears in the May issue of the journal Nature Genetics.

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Alcohol No Protection Against Parkinson's

A new study contradicts previous research that concluded alcohol has a protective effect against Parkinson's disease.

The Harvard School of Public Health study, appearing in the May 15 issue of the Annals of Neurology, says that alcohol has no effect on preventing the neurological disease, HealthDay reports.

The study of 88,722 women and 47,367 men found no correlation between moderate to low alcohol consumption and the development of Parkinson's. The researchers had no data about heavy drinkers.

Some previous studies have shown that alcohol, coffee, and cigarette smoking helps protect people against Parkinson's.

The disease affects about 1.5 million Americans, with 50,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It's most common among people over 50 years of age.

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Body's Response to SARS May Damage Lungs

Much of life-threatening lung damage that results in SARS victims may not be caused by the virus itself, but by the body's own overaggressive attack on the germ, according to a new study published in The Lancet medical journal.

University of Hong Kong researchers say the results show that drugs designed to thwart viruses may not be enough to combat the disease, reports the Associated Press.

The body's white blood cells' attack on the virus appears to result in much of the lung damage that affects SARS victims, leading some doctors in Asia to routinely prescribe immune-suppressing steroidal drugs in addition to medications that target the virus, the AP reports.

But other doctors warn against prescribing the immune suppressants until researchers prove that they work in animals.

In Taiwan, where the SARS outbreak appears to be in full swing, the country's health chief resigned Friday and was replaced by a respected epidemiologist. The country reports 10 new cases and three deaths, bringing the national toll to 274 infections and 37 fatalities. Many of the cases can be traced to a single woman's 40-minute stay last month at a Taipei emergency ward, the AP reports.

Also Friday, World Health Organization investigators confirm that leaky sewage pipes and inadequate bathroom venting systems helped spread the disease in a Hong Kong apartment complex, causing one of the world's worst single outbreaks. More than 300 people contracted SARS at the Amoy Gardens complex, leading to 35 deaths.

Worldwide, at least 613 have died and 7,700 have been infected since SARS first appeared in November in southern China, the AP says.

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FDA Panel OK's Innovative Asthma Drug

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration expert panel has voted unanimously to recommend approval of Xolair (omalizumab) to treat symptoms of allergic asthma. It's the first in a new class of medications that target the root cause of allergies, rather than just treating allergy symptoms.

The body's reaction to something it's allergic to produces IgE antibodies, which travel through the bloodstream. Xolair is meant to prevent the IgEs from attaching themselves to cells, thus preventing the allergic reaction. The injected medication is administered every two to four weeks in patients 12 years and older.

Allergies are a prime contributor to asthma, which affects some 3 million Americans. The medication, though initially approved to treat allergic asthma, may ultimately be more widely prescribed to treat common allergies themselves, experts say.

Thursday's 11-0 vote was based on two year-long clinical trials involving 1,071 allergic asthma patients. Reported side effects included viral infections, sinusitis, upper respiratory infections, and headaches.

The full FDA is not bound to follow the recommendations of its expert panels, but usually does. Manufacturers Genentech Inc., Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., and Tanox Inc. say full approval is expected by the end of June.

According to media reports, the drug's benefits may come at a steep price -- up to $10,000 per year. Officially, the three-firm partnership says no price has been set.

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Senate Passes $15B AIDS Bill

The U.S. Senate voted early Friday to approve a $15 billion package to combat AIDS across the globe, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The measure provides $3 billion annually over five years, and one-third of the funding must be earmarked for programs that promote abstinence, the Washington Post reports.

Following earlier passage of an almost identical bill by the House, the legislation now moves to President Bush, who originally proposed the measure in his January State of the Union speech.

Supporters of the legislation turned back several attempts to scale-back the abstinence-only programs, the newspaper reports. Some of these measures are aimed at "changing male behavior" by promoting faithfulness among men to women, said Senate Majority Leader Bill First (R-Tenn.). Some critics responded that these components were "not in the interest of global health but in the interest of an American political agenda," in the words of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Published on May 16, 2003

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