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Health Highlights: Nov. 15, 2006

Merck Cleared in Latest Vioxx Heart Attack Trial Medicare Beneficiaries Can Shop Around for Drug Plans NYC Promoting Increased Access to Morning-After Pill Stem-Cell Treatment Benefits Dogs With Muscular Dystropy Study Tests Stem-Cell Treatment for Batten Disease AMA Abandons Proposal to Tax Soft Drinks

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

Merck Cleared in Latest Vioxx Heart Attack Trial

A federal jury in New Orleans on Wednesday found the drug maker Merck & Co. not liable for a heart attack suffered in 2003 by a Utah bank credit manager who'd taken the once-popular painkiller Vioxx for 10 and a half months.

Charles Laron "Ron" Mason, 64, of Salt Lake County, began taking Vioxx after years of taking anti-inflammatory drugs because of back pain, the Associated Press reported.

The case was the 11th to be tried and the fourth in federal court. Merck won two previous federal cases and lost the third. In state court, the company has won three, and lost three, the news service said.

Mason is among more than 24,000 people and corporations who have sued Merck since it withdrew the drug from the market in 2004 because of evidence that Vioxx doubled patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Another 15,000 potential plaintiffs have agreements temporarily suspending the time to sue, and Merck disclosed last week that a Canadian judge has approved a class-action suit for residents of Quebec, the AP said.

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Medicare Beneficiaries Can Shop Around for Drug Plans

As of Wednesday, Medicare beneficiaries can enroll in prescription-drug plans or switch plans.

They have until Dec. 31 to sign up or make a switch, but federal officials are urging them to take action by Dec. 8, to avoid potential problems at pharmacies as people rush to meet the deadline.

Many people may want to make a change because some of the most popular drug plans will be charging much higher premiums in 2007, The New York Times reported.

In all states except Alaska and Hawaii, Medicare beneficiaries can choose from more than 50 drug plans.

According to the Bush administration, the average premium for Medicare drug plans in 2007 will be $24 a month. That's about the same as in 2006. However, the $24 figure is for the minimum coverage required by law, the Times reported.

A number of recent surveys suggest that about 75 percent of people with Medicare drug coverage are satisfied.

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NYC Promoting Increased Access to Morning-After Pill

Now that the Plan B emergency contraceptive -- the so-called morning-after pill -- is being sold over-the-counter at New York City pharmacies, the city wants to boost awareness about increased access to the pill.

It's doing that by providing details about the drug on its 311 information hot line, the Associated Press reported.

"Plan B is a safe and effective way to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex," Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner of the city health department's Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health, said in a statement.

It's expected that Plan B will be available over-the-counter in pharmacies across the United States this month, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided in August to allow women to buy the drug without a prescription.

Before that FDA approval, non-prescription sales of Plan B were permitted in just nine states, the AP reported.

Plan B has been sold as a prescription drug in the United States since 1999. But many experts and groups have pushed for OTC sales of the contraceptive because it's more effective the sooner it's taken after unprotected sex.

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Stem-Cell Treatment Benefits Dogs With Muscular Dystropy

Stem-cell transplants led to marked improvement in dogs with a version of muscular dystrophy (MD), according to a team of Italian-French researchers. The results suggest that stem cells could be used to treat muscular dystrophy in humans.

The scientists used stem cells that are "programmed" to turn into muscle cells. These stems cells, called mesoangioblasts, were harvested from blood vessels in dogs, BBC News reported.

Four of six dogs that received injections of stem cells from healthy dogs regained muscle strength. The researchers also tried injecting MD-afflicted dogs with their own "corrected" stem cells but the results were less successful.

The findings appear in the journal Nature.

"This is an excellent piece of work demonstrating significant functional improvement in a naturally occurring disease in dogs that is very similar to that in humans," Dr. Stephen Minger, a stem-cell researcher at Kings College London, told BBC News.

"Although it will likely be some time before this work can move to humans, it is nevertheless an important study in developing therapies for muscular dystrophies," Minger said.

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Study Tests Stem-Cell Treatment for Batten Disease

Doctors at Oregon Health & Science University on Tuesday conducted the first human transplant of a purified brain stem cell product called HuCNS-SC. The transplant is the first of six to test the product in children with a rare fatal neurological disorder called Batten disease.

The transplants are being done as part of a Phase I clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of HuCNS-SC, made by California-based StemCells Inc.

For the trial, researchers expect to enroll a total of six patients over the next 12 months. Along with assessing the safety of the product, the researchers will assess patients for development, cognition, behavior and language for a year after they receive the transplant.

Batten disease is caused by a lack of a lysosomal enzyme in the brain -- the result of inherited genetic mutations. Children with Batten disease suffer seizures, progressive loss of motor skills, sight and mental capacity. They eventually become blind, bedridden and unable to communicate.

HuCNS-SC is designed to promote production of the missing lysosomal enzyme in the brain.

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AMA Abandons Proposal to Tax Soft Drinks

A proposal to push for taxes on soft drinks to help fight the obesity epidemic in the United States was rejected Tuesday by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Instead, the nation's most influential doctors' group voted in favor of a proposal for a broader-based effort to combat obesity, the Associated Press reported.

The American Beverage Association, which opposed the AMA's tax proposal, issued a statement that commended the AMA for adopting "a comprehensive approach to addressing the complex problem of obesity."

However, Dr. Ron Davis, president-elect of the AMA, said this isn't the end of the idea of taxing soft drinks, the AP reported. Davis noted that soft drinks now account for 7 percent of the calories in the typical American diet, which makes them the leading source of calories.

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