Health Highlights: Oct. 13, 2009

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

Snowe Votes With Dems on Health Care Reform Bill

In a symbolic victory for Democrats, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe crossed party lines and voted for a Democratic health care reform bill on Tuesday.

The Democrats hold a 13-10 majority on the Senate Finance Committee, which ensured passage of a 10-year, $829-billion plan bill that requires nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance and introduces numerous other changes, the Associated Press reported.

So, although the Maine Senator's announcement didn't change the outcome of the crucial vote, it provided a much-needed boost to President Barack Obama's quest to provide universal health coverage. Colleagues said Snowe had some misgivings about the bill, but has said "when history calls, history calls," the AP said.

Senate Finance Committee support of the bill, which Republicans oppose, would represent a significant advance in Obama's efforts to overhaul the nation's $2.5 trillion health system. Four other congressional committees passed legislation before August. For months, attention has focused on the Finance Committee, the remaining one.

Even after the Finance Committee's approval, much more work must be done before the bill could arrive on Obama's desk, the AP reported. The bill will have to be folded into a more liberal one passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. And the House of Representatives is still working on its version of a bill.

Along with making health insurance mandatory, the Finance Committee bill would force insurance companies to accept all applicants, and consumers could look for insurance within new state marketplaces called exchanges. There are consumer protections such as limits on co-pays and deductibles, and lower-income families would receive federal subsidies to help them purchase coverage.

Employers wouldn't have to provide coverage for their workers, but they'd have to pay a penalty for each worker who sought insurance with government subsidies, the AP reported. Medicare would be expanded. The cost of the bill would be covered by new taxes on insurance companies and others, along with cuts to Medicare providers.


Aspirin Overdoses May Have Caused Some 1918 Pandemic Deaths

A researcher suggests that aspirin overdoses may have caused some deaths during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

Dr. Karen M. Starko said that high doses of aspirin -- amounts considered unsafe today -- were used to treat patients in the pandemic. She also noted that doctors may have had difficulty distinguishing symptoms of aspirin overdose from those of the flu, especially among patients who died soon after they became ill, The New York Times reported.

At the time, aspirin packages didn't have any warnings about toxicity and included few instructions for use. Federal officials recommended aspirin as a symptomatic treatment for the flu, and the U.S. military purchased large quantities of the drug.

During the pandemic, the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested an aspirin dose of 1,000 milligrams every three hours. That's the equivalent of 25 standard 325-milligram aspirin tablets in 24 hours, about twice the daily dosage considered safe today, the Times reported.

The research, which appears in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, is "intriguing," said Peter A. Chyka, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Tennessee.

"In the context of what we know today about aspirin and aspirin-like products, Starko has made an interesting effort to put this together," he told The Times. "There are things other than flu that can complicate a disease like this."


Teen 'Grows' New Cheekbones

Donor bone and stem cells were used to grow new cheekbones in an American teen with a rare genetic disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome, in which bones in the face don't develop.

This successful procedure could help other patients with similar genetic conditions or those who've lost bone due to traumatic injuries, said doctors at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center who operated for eight hours on 15-year-old Brad Guilkey, ABC News reported.

Cadaver bone was implanted into Brad's face and then the teen's own stem cells were injected into the donor bone. The experimental procedure was performed in May and Brad now has solid bone in his cheeks.

"I've been really pleasantly surprised by the results of this," operation, which could have significant implications for millions of people, said Dr. Jesse Taylor, of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, ABC News reported.

"Certainly, as we're engaged in conflicts abroad, more and more young men and women come back with really severe facial disfigurement from a lack of bone," Taylor said.


Death Caused By Improper Relenza Use: Drug Maker

Inappropriate use of the anti-flu medication Relenza has been linked with at least one death, drug maker GlaxoSmithKline says in a letter sent to doctors. The letter was posted online Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The death occurred after the drug was reformulated into a liquid form, an action not recommended by the FDA. Glaxo said Relenza should only be used in the prescribed manner. The letter didn't provide any details about the person who died, the Associated Press reported.

Relenza, which comes in powder form to be used with a special inhaler device, is approved by the FDA to treat symptoms of seasonal flu when taken within two days of the start of the flu.

Millions of doses of Relenza and Roche's Tamiflu have been stockpiled by the United States, the AP reported.


Adult Stem Cells Used to Create Jaw Joint

U.S. researchers who used human adult stem cells to create part of a jaw joint in the laboratory said their success could lead to new ways to treat jaw problems and other types of bone disorders.

Stem cells taken from bone marrow were seeded into a tissue scaffold, which had been formed into a temporomandibular joint by using digital images from a patient. The cells were infused with the exact amount of nutrients found during natural bone development, BBC News reported.

The Columbia University study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The availability of personalized bone grafts engineered from the patient's own stem cells would revolutionize the way we currently treat these defects," said lead researcher Dr. Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, BBC News reported.

"We thought the jawbone would be the most rigorous test of our technique; if you can make this, you can make any shape," she noted.

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