Health Highlights: Oct. 2, 2006

U.S. Doctors Slow to Use Information Technology 2 U.S. Scientists Win Nobel Prize for Medicine U.S. Scientists Use Mature Blood Cells to Clone Mice Cancer Drug Gleevec May Cause Heart Problems: Novartis Steroid Use Kills Brain Cells: Study Tamiflu 'Widely Available' This Flu Season: Manufacturer

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

U.S. Doctors Slow to Use Information Technology

Fewer than half of U.S. doctors routinely use common information technology (IT) -- such as e-mail and other Internet-based and computerized information resources -- in their practices, according to a survey of about 1,700 physicians in six different specialties.

The Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers found that only four percent of doctors frequently use e-mail to communicate with patients, while 30 percent frequently use e-mail to communicate with colleagues.

The survey also found that 24 percent of the doctors routinely access online medical education courses; and about 40 percent reported frequent use of online scientific journals and computerized or online text decision support tools.

"We are investing tens of billions of dollars in health information technology nationally, yet the medical profession has been very slow to adopt these tools for clinical care," lead author Dr. Richard Grant, of the division of general medicine at MGH, said in a prepared statement.

"We were shocked at the very low rate of basic IT use, particularly among solo practice and non-academic physicians. I'm sure that the vast majority of them personally use e-mail and the Internet, but most do not have effective ways to integrate these tools into clinical practice," Grant said.

The study appears online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and will be published in the November print issue.


2 U.S. Scientists Win Nobel Prize for Medicine

Two American scientists have been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of a powerful way to switch off the effect of specific genes, which may lead to new ways of treating diseases such as AIDS, cancer, and heart disease.

Andrew Z. Fire, 47, of Stanford University and Craig C. Mello, 45, of the University of Massachusetts, won the award for their work on RNA interference, which they published in 1998, the Associated Press reported.

RNA interference, a process that occurs naturally in animals and plants, plays an important role in gene activity and helps defend against viral infection. It is a complicated process that had confused scientists for years, the AP reported.

Erna Moller, a member of the Nobel committee, said Monday that the research by the American scientists provided vital information about RNA interference.

"It was like opening the blinds in the morning. Suddenly you can see everything clearly," Moller said.


U.S. Scientists Use Mature Blood Cells to Clone Mice

Stem cells aren't necessary for cloning, and other kinds of cells may be even better candidates for the process, say U.S. scientists who created two baby mice from a mature type of white blood cell that can't replicate itself.

It was previously believed that only immature stem cells, which are capable of developing into many kinds of other cells, could be used for cloning, BBC News reported.

The U.S. team used fully mature white blood cells called granulocytes to create the two baby mice. Both of them died within a few hours after birth. The findings appear in the journal Nature Genetics.

"We can say with near certainty that a fully differentiated cell such as a granulocyte retains the genetic capacity for becoming like a seed that can give rise to all cell types necessary for the development of an entire organism," said researcher Dr. Tao Cheng of the University of Pittsburgh.

The results are surprising, stem cell expert Dr. Stephen Minger, of King's College London in England, told BBC News.

"Up until this [point], the conventional wisdom was that the less mature a cell, the more likely it is to be reprogrammed. This work suggests the contrary. Certain types of mature cells could be much easier to reprogram than expected," Minger said.


Cancer Drug Gleevec May Cause Heart Problems: Novartis

Drug maker Novartis, in conjunction with Health Canada, issued a warning Monday that its cancer drug Gleevec could cause decreased heart function in some patients.

The advisory said that patients who have heart disease-related problems and are taking Gleevec should talk with their doctors about the risks of heart failure, and that doctors should closely monitor these patients, the Canadian Press reported.

Patients who are taking Gleevec and develop symptoms of heart failure -- such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and leg swelling -- should see their doctors immediately, the advisory said. It also noted that patients should not stop taking Gleevec without first consulting a doctor.

During the summer, the journal Nature Medicine published a study that said 10 patients treated with Gleevec later developed decreased heart function and congestive heart failure, the CP reported.


Steroid Use Kills Brain Cells: Study

Using steroids to increase muscle bulk can lead to a "catastrophic" loss of brain cells and result in the aggressive and suicidal behavior seen in some steroid users, says a Yale University School of Medicine study.

Steroids are known to increase levels of the male sex hormone testosterone. In laboratory tests, the Yale team found that high levels of testosterone kill off nerve cells, BBC News reported.

The findings appear in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

"Next time a muscle-bound guy in a sports car cuts you off on the highway, don't get mad, just take a deep breath and realize that it might not be his fault," said lead researcher Professor Barbara Ehrlich.

John Brewer, director of the Lucozade Sports Science Academy, told BBC News he wasn't surprised by the findings.

"People think steroids are banned because they are performance enhancing, but the second, equally important, reason is that they are known to have a major negative effect on people's health," Brewer said. "This study provides further evidence for why we should never give in to people who want to use steroids and drugs in sport."


Tamiflu 'Widely Available' This Flu Season: Manufacturer

Supplies of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu will be "widely available" during the 2006-2007 flu season in the northern hemisphere, Swiss drug maker Roche said Monday.

Tamiflu is used to fight seasonal influenza viruses and is being stockpiled by many nations in anticipation of a bird flu-related pandemic.

Roche said that during the 2005-2006 season it restricted distribution of the drug to wholesalers in a number of markets while it expanded production capacity for Tamiflu, Agence France Presse reported.

"This led to the perception that Tamiflu was in short supply. Based on the available manufacturing capacities, the supply shortage no longer exists," Roche said. "Physicians can be confident that Tamiflu will be readily and widely available to patients who need it this season for flu treatment and post-exposure prevention."

Roche also said that the measures it took "enable us to schedule any additional orders from governments and corporations who are stockpiling Tamilfu in preparation for an influenza pandemic."

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