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Health Highlights: Sept. 7, 2006

White House Pledges $75 Million for Ground Zero Illnesses Illicit Drug Use Rises Among U.S. Baby Boomers Extremely Drug-Resistant TB Found in South Africa FDA Advisers Recommend Against Leukemia Drug Gene Turns Off Stem Cell Regeneration with Age DEA Proposal Allows 90-day Supply of Painkillers No EPO in U.S. Sprinter's "B" Sample

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

White House Pledges $75 Million for Ground Zero Illnesses

The White House has promised $75 million to treat health problems affecting thousands of Ground Zero rescue/cleanup workers and volunteers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Thursday that the money would be delivered to Sept. 11 health programs by the end of this month, the Associated Press reported.

It's the first federal money for health problems related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"If the $75 million proves to be inadequate, the federal government will be part of a coordinated effort to solve whatever the balance of the problem is," Leavitt told reporters after he met with sick Ground Zero workers, members of New York's congressional delegation, and other members of Congress.

While the $75 million is a start, it won't be anywhere near enough to cover all the treatment costs for Ground Zero workers suffering from lung, gastrointestinal, and mental health problems, said Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y) and Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.).

Her group's share of the $75 million could be spent within a year, said Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the Mount Sinai Medical Center program in New York studying the health of Ground Zero workers, the AP reported.

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Illicit Drug Use Rising Among U.S. Baby Boomers

The rate of illicit drug use among U.S. baby boomers ages 50 to 59 increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 4.4 percent in 2005. At the same time, drug abuse among young teens declined from 11.6 percent in 2002 to 9.9 percent in 2005, according to a federal government report released Thursday.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found little change in overall drug use among Americans age 12 and older. In 2005, about 19.7 million Americans (8.1 percent) used illicit drugs, the Associated Press reported.

Baby boomers weren't the only group that showed an increase in illicit drug use. Drug use among people ages 18 to 25 also rose from 19.4 percent to 20.1 percent.

Marijuana was the drug of choice in all age groups. Overall, 14.6 million Americans used marijuana in 2005, compared to about 2.4 million who used cocaine, and 6.4 million who used prescription drugs -- such as painkillers, sedatives or tranquilizers -- for nonmedical purposes.

The annual survey involves interviews with about 67,500 people, 12 and older. The survey also found that alcohol use increased in 2005, while tobacco use held steady.

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Extremely Drug-Resistant TB Found in South Africa

An extremely drug-resistant form of tuberculosis identified in South Africa has likely spread beyond the rural area where 52 of the 53 people diagnosed with the dangerous strain have died, says Dr. Tony Moll, who discovered the new strain.

Moll, who works at a government hospital in the Kwazulu-Natal region of eastern South Africa, told the Associated Press that the deadly strain has been identified in miners who are always on the move and, therefore, can probably be found throughout the country.

On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that people could be dying in places that don't have the resources to fight this resistant TB.

The WHO said drugs from two of the six medicines used as a last line of defence against TB were ineffective against this new strain, the AP reported.

Moll noted that TB has been on the rise in South Africa because HIV/AIDS has lowered the ability of so many people to fight TB and other infections.

FDA Advisers Recommend Against Leukemia Drug

A proposed drug to treat the most common form of adult leukemia should not receive federal approval, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel recommended Wednesday.

FDA scientists had previously said more leukemia patients responded to chemotherapy when the drug, Genasense, was added to their treatment therapy, but added that the overall difference was of "questionable clinical significance," the Associated Press reported. The drug also appeared to increase the treatment's toxicity, the FDA said.

Genasense would be administered with two other drugs to treat leukemia patients, according to manufacturer Genta Inc., of Berkeley Heights, N.J. The FDA panel vote of cancer experts was 7-3 against approval, the AP reported. The FDA isn't required to follow the advice of its advisory panels, but typically does.

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Gene Turns Off Stem-Cell Regeneration with Age

A gene called p16-Ink4a switches off stem cells as a person ages in order to reduce the risk of cancer and this process may be a factor in age-related health problems, according to research published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

U.S. scientists found that the gene, already known for its role in suppressing tumors, balances the production of new replacement cells (a requirement for continued life) against the risk of cancer, which occurs when cells continue to divide uncontrollably, The New York Times reported.

To counterbalance the increased risk of cancer linked with age, the p16-Ink4a gene gradually reduces stem cells' ability to proliferate, the scientists found. The research was conducted in mice that lacked the p16-Ink4a gene, but it's believed that the finding is likely valid in humans, too.

The scientists said the finding suggests that many age-related degenerative diseases are not the result of deterioration caused by daily wear-and-tear, but by this gene's switching off of stem cells that renew the body's various tissues, the Times reported.

If stem cells are switched off with age, it may not be possible to use a patient's own adult stem cells to treat disease, the scientists noted.

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DEA Proposal Allows 90-day Supply of Painkillers

Americans who take powerful prescription pain killers for chronic pain may be able to get a 90-day supply instead of the current 30-day supply, under a proposal announced Wednesday by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The new proposal makes it clear that doctors could prescribe up to a 90-day supply of prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and codeine without fear of prosecution by the DEA, the Associated Press reported.

"Today's policy statement reaffirms that DEA wants doctors to treat pain as is appropriate under accepted medical community standards," DEA chief Karen Tandy said at a news briefing. "Physicians acting in accordance with accepted medical practice should be confident that they will not be criminally charged."

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No EPO in U.S. Sprinter's "B" Sample

Testing on American sprinter Marion Jones' "B" sample did not detect the banned endurance enhancer EPO, her lawyers said Wednesday night.

Jones initially tested positive for EPO on June 23 after she won the 100 meters at the U.S. nationals. But the negative result on the "B" sample means that the initial "A" sample test result will be discarded, the Associated Press reported.

This clears the way for Jones to return to competition.

"I am absolutely ecstatic. I have always maintained that I have never ever taken performance-enhancing drugs, and I am pleased that a scientific process has now demonstrated that fact," Jones said in a statement released by her lawyers.

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