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Health Highlights: Nov. 16, 2010

FDA May Take Action Against Caffeinated Alcohol Drinks Diabetes Drug Mediator Linked to 500 Deaths U.S. Cancer Patients' End-of-Life Care Varies Widely: Study Yearly MRI Scans Benefit Women at High Breast Cancer Risk: Study First Stroke Patient Injected With Stem Cells Secondhand Smoke Linked to Hearing Loss: Study

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

FDA May Take Action Against Caffeinated Alcohol Drinks

The results of a year-long review on energy drinks that contain alcohol and caffeine are expected to be announced Wednesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency isn't saying what action it may take as a result of the review, but it's possible that manufacturers will be sent warning letters telling them that the drinks are unsafe, according to several food safety lawyers who once worked for the FDA, The New York Times reported.

CNN reported Tuesday that New York Sen. Charles Schumer said the FDA was preparing to ban the drinks.

The FDA declined to comment on the report, saying the matter was still under review.

But Schumer, in a news release, said the FDA would rule that caffeine is an unsafe additive to alcoholic beverages, effectively banning them from the U.S. market, CNN said.

"Let these rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down," Schumer said.

An increasing number of incidents where young people have fallen ill or died after consuming the beverages have put pressure on state and federal regulators. Several states have moved to ban the drinks. Some state officials say the FDA has moved too slowly on the issue.

"To be very blunt, there's just no excuse for the delay in applying standards that clearly should bar this kind of witch's brew," Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, told The Times. When he was the state's attorney general, he led a campaign against the caffeinated alcohol drinks.


Diabetes Drug Mediator Linked to 500 Deaths

The banned diabetes and weight loss drug Mediator (benflourex) may have contributed to the deaths of about 500 people, say health officials in France.

The European Medicines Agency banned Mediator last year but France's health products safety agency said that people who used the drug between 2006 and 2009 should get checked for possible heart valve problems, the Associated Press reported.

About five million people have used Mediator since 1976, according to the French agency.

When the European Medicines Agency said it decided to pull the drug from the market because it had little effect on diabetes and could lead to a dangerous thickening of heart valves, the AP reported.


U.S. Cancer Patients' End-of-Life Care Varies Widely: Study

There are wide regional variations in the proportion of cancer patients who die in the hospital and get hospice care, say U.S. researchers.

They analyzed the records of 235,821 Medicare patients with cancer, ages 65 and older, who died between 2003 and 2007. Overall, one-third of the patients spent their final days in hospitals and intensive care units. However, regional rates ranged from 46.7 percent in New York City's Manhattan to only 7 percent in Mason City, Iowa, the Washington Post reported.

Overall, 6 percent of patients received chemotherapy in their last two weeks of life, but the rate was more than 10 percent in some places, said the researchers at the Dartmouth Atlas Project in Lebanon, N.H. Studies have shown that chemotherapy has little or no value for frail elderly patients and those with advanced cancer.

There was also wide variation in hospice care. At least 50 academic medical centers failed to provide hospice services for more than half of their patients with a poor prognosis. The researchers also found that some hospitals referred patients to hospice care too late to provide much comfort, the Post reported.

"The care that patients receive has less to do with what they want and more to do with the hospitals they happen to seek care from," study leader David Goodman said during a briefing. "Geography is destiny."


Yearly MRI Scans Benefit Women at High Breast Cancer Risk: Study

Yearly MRI scans, in conjunction with mammograms and breast exams, may help save the lives of women at high risk of breast cancer due to genetic mutations or family history, say researchers.

The study of 2,157 women in the Netherlands found that 93 percent of high-risk women with genetic mutations who received yearly MRIs were still alive after six years, The New York Times reported.

Earlier studies of women with genetic mutations who didn't have annual MRIs found a survival rate of 74 percent after five years.

In the new study, the six-year survival rate was 100 percent for women who were at high risk due to family history and had annual MRIs, The Times reported.

The study appears online in The Journal of Clinical Oncology.

For several years, experts have recommended that high-risk women undergo yearly MRI scans in addition to mammography, but it wasn't known whether the combined testing actually saved lives.


First Stroke Patient Injected With Stem Cells

An elderly patient in Scotland is believed to be the first in the world to have stem cells injected into the brain in order to treat stroke.

The man was the first to receive the treatment as part of a clinical trial at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. He was given low doses over the weekend and has since been discharged from the hospital. Doctors say he is doing well, BBC News reported.

Over the next year, as many as 12 patients will receive progressively higher doses of stem cells. The study's primary objective is to assess safety, but doctors will also check if the stem cells have started to repair stroke damage and if the patients have shown improvement.

If this trial goes well, it will lead to further research.

"We hope that in the future it will lead to larger studies to determine the effectiveness of stem cells on the disabilities that result from strokes," said Professor Keith Muir, a neuroscientist at Glasgow University and a consultant neurologist at Southern General Hospital, BBC News reported.


Secondhand Smoke Linked to Hearing Loss: Study

Secondhand smoke can cause hearing loss, according to a new study.

U.S. researchers checked the hearing of 3,307 nonsmokers and found that exposure to secondhand smoke increased the risk of hearing loss across all sound frequencies by about one-third, BBC News reported.

"We really do not know exactly how much smoke you need to be exposed to in order to be at increased risk. But we do know that the threshold for damage is very low," said study leader Dr. David Fabry. "Really, the safe level of exposure is no exposure."

The study appears in the journal Tobacco Control.

"We already knew from our own research that regular active smoking is a significant risk factor leading to hearing loss and this new study is important as it highlights the increased risks posed by passive smoking too," Dr Ralph Holme, head of biomedical research at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, told BBC News.


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