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Health Highlights: Oct. 1, 2006

Enzyme Blockers May Fight Colon Cancer Cancer Drugs' Soaring Cost Stirs Controversy U.S. Food-Borne Illnesses Declining: CDC Medicare Drug Plan Choices On the Rise

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

Enzyme Blockers May Fight Colon Cancer

Studies in mice suggest that blocking the activity of a key enzyme could put the brakes on colon cancer.

Reporting in the Oct. 1 issue of Cancer Research, a team at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, say compounds that inhibit this enzyme, called aldose reductase, might prove to be potent colon cancers fighters.

Aldose reductase plays a key role in biochemical signaling that drives inflammation and the growth of malignant cells, the researchers found.

"When we inhibited aldose reductase by using pharmacological inhibitors or genetic manipulations, all the inflammatory players were significantly blocked," lead researcher and UTMB professor Satish Srivastava said in a statement.

In mice with colon cancer, inhibition of the enzyme brought about complete cessation of tumor growth, with no apparent side effects, the researchers said.

According to Srivastava, aldose reductase-inhibiting drugs are already being tested in phase III clinical trials elsewhere, since they may also help prevent complications linked to diabetes. However, more study is needed before their effectiveness against human colon cancer can be confirmed, the researcher said.

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Cancer Drugs' Soaring Cost Stirs Controversy

Desperate cancer patients are demanding -- and receiving -- access to medications with increasingly exorbitant price tags, even when the superiority of these drugs over cheaper medications remains dubious, experts say.

One such case, outlined Sunday in The New York Times, centers on Abraxane, a new formulation of an older breast cancer drug called Taxol. While Abraxane sells for $4,200 per dose, Taxol's generic form, paclitaxel, sells for just $150.

Abraxane was developed and marketed by Los Angeles-based surgeon Dr. Patrick Soong-Shiong, whose company, Abraxis BioScience, had total sales of $519 million last year. Sales of Abraxane are expected to top $1 billion by 2010, analysts say.

Speaking with The Times, Soong-Shiong said the jump in price is justified because Abraxane causes fewer allergic reactions in patients than Taxol/paclitaxel. But a recent independent review of the drug, published in the Annals of Oncology, called the medication "old wine in a new bottle."

Clinical trials have given a slight edge to Abraxane over Taxol in terms of its ability to shrink tumors, but found no difference in terms of extending cancer patients' survival.

Other cancer drugs can be just as expensive. For example, according to The Times, Summit, N.J., -based Celgene has gradually boosted the cost of its multiple myeloma drug Thalomid from $4,000 to over $35,000 per year.

But experts say that the desperation of patients, along with laws that restrain insurers from selecting drugs based on cost, means that drug companies are assured a market for cancer medications -- even at exorbitant prices.

"There isn't an effort in terms of public policy to keep prices under control," Carolina Hinestrosa, executive vice president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, told The Times.

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U.S. Food-Borne Illnesses Declining: CDC

Despite this month's outbreak of E.coli illness linked to contaminated spinach, Americans are much safer today from food-borne illness than they were 10 years ago, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported Friday.

In fact, cases of sickness linked to tainted food for the year 2005 were far below 1996-1998 levels, in nearly every illness category, the Associated Press reported. The new CDC statistics, culled from its FoodNet tracking system, were presented at a conference of the American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco.

For example, cases of yersinia poisoning have fallen by nearly half in the last decade, shigella cases declined by 43 percent and listeria illness fell by 32 percent. Cases of the most dangerous strain of E. coli, called O157, fell by 29 percent over the 10-year period and salmonella cases declined by 9 percent. Only cases of infection with vibrio -- a bug found in raw oysters -- rose significantly during the ten-year period, by 41 percent, the CDC said.

Better industry oversight and inspection now means that "food is actually cleaner to begin with," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, a leading food scientist at the agency.

Still, the CDC estimates that food-borne germs continue to sicken 76 million Americans each year, sending 323,000 to hospitals and killing about 5,000. The recent spinach-linked outbreak caused 1 death and hospitalized 97 people.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday lifted its warning on eating spinach, except for specific brands packaged on certain days by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Batista, Calif., and the companies it supplied.

On the same day, agency officials warned consumers that certain lots of Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice have been linked to four cases of botulism.

The products include all Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice sold in 450 ml and 1-liter plastic bottles, with "best if used by" dates of Nov. 11, 2006, or earlier, the AP reported.

The botulism cases were linked to poor refrigeration of the product once consumers brought it home. Carrot juice, even if pasteurized, should always be refrigerated until use, the FDA said.

In the latest case a Florida woman suffered paralysis, a symptom of botulism poisoning. Other symptoms include double vision, droopy eyelids and trouble speaking and swallowing.

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Medicare Drug Plan Choices On the Rise

American seniors who thought picking a Medicare "Part D" drug plan was a headache last year will have an even harder time choosing for 2007.

U.S. officials on Friday announced that the number of companies approved by Medicare to offer coverage will rise from just 9 in 2005 to 17 this year.

As reported by the Associated Press, that means that seniors in Oklahoma, for example, will now have 57 stand-alone plans to pick from, compared to 42 this year. Enrollees in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will all have over 60 plans to select from.

Seniors considering a switch to a new plan also have less time this year to make their choice, with an enrollment period for 2007 that begins Nov. 15 and ends Dec. 31. During the plan's roll-out last year, recipients were given 6 months to make their choice.

Part D's critics aren't optimistic. "The incredible confusion that persisted throughout the year is about to get considerably worse," Ron Pollack, executive director of the advocacy group Families USA, told the AP.

But U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was less concerned. "We expect most [enrollees] will not want to change," he said. "However, we do encourage seniors to compare their current plans with the new offerings."

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