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Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2004

Health Experts Knew of Risks With AIDS Drug: Report U.S. to Launch Human Trials of SARS Vaccine Study Says Smell Test Can Predict Alzheimer's Disease Bush Nominates New U.S. Health Chief Stroke to Keep Dick Clark From Hosting New Year's Show Diabetes Vaccine Trials to Begin in Great Britain

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

Health Experts Knew of Risks With AIDS Drug: Report

U.S. health officials were aware of potential problems with an AIDS drug back in 2002 -- a drug that has been a cornerstone of the Bush Administration's efforts to control spread of the disease in Africa.

But the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's leading research agency, did not tell the White House. The reason: Agency officials tried to keep its experts' concerns from scuttling use of the drug -- nevirapine -- as an inexpensive weapon against AIDS in Africa, the Associated Press reported Monday, citing federal documents it obtained.

Nevirapine is an antiretroviral drug that has been used in the United States since the 1990s to treat adult AIDS patients. It is known to have potentially lethal effects, including liver damage and severe rashes when taken over time, the AP said.

In 1997, the NIH began studying the use of nevirapine in Uganda to see whether it could be given safely in single doses to stop mother-to-baby transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That research showed it could reduce transmission in as many as half the births, the AP said.

However, by early 2002, an NIH auditor, the agency's medical safety experts and the drug's maker -- Boehringer Ingelheim -- all disclosed widespread problems about the U.S.-funded research in Uganda. Boehringer and NIH auditors pointed to such concerns as failing to get patients' consent about changes in the experiment, administering wrong doses, and delays and underreporting of "fatal and life threatening" problems, according to the AP.

NIH officials told the AP they remain confident after re-reviewing the Uganda study and other research that nevirapine can be used safely in single doses by African mothers and children to prevent HIV transmissions during birth. But they acknowledged their Uganda research failed to meet required U.S. standards, the news service said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended that the NIH stop using the drug with certain patients. It also has demanded stronger warnings to doctors and patients about possible lethal liver damage and rashes in patients who take nevirapine for long periods of time, the AP said.

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U.S. to Launch Human Trials of SARS Vaccine

The United States will soon begin human trials of a vaccine designed to combat SARS, the viral respiratory infection that killed nearly 800 people worldwide after it first emerged in China in 2002, federal officials said Monday.

The experimental vaccine will be tested on 10 healthy volunteers at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. The volunteers will undergo periodic follow-up exams for 32 weeks, researchers said.

The trial's primary goal is to determine if the vaccine is safe. A second goal: To gauge how well it prompts the immune system to produce antibodies and cellular immunity. Researchers are focusing on the SARS spike protein, which protrudes from the virus' outer envelope and helps it bind to cells that it infects.

Instead of using a weakened or an inactivated virus -- which is typical for vaccine development -- the new vaccine is composed of a small circular piece of DNA that encodes the viral spike protein. Scientists said they modified the DNA to minimize the risk of it combining with the SARS virus or other viruses of the SARS type, called coronaviruses.

SARS was first identified in China in November 2002. The virus sickened 8,096 people and killed 774 worldwide by July 2003, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). SARS was brought under control with aggressive public health measures, including patient isolation, quarantines of exposed people, and stringent restrictions on travel.

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Study Says Smell Test Can Predict Alzheimer's Disease

The ability to detect 10 smells -- including lemons, lilac and leather -- can be used to help predict which people with minimal or mild cognitive impairment will develop Alzheimer's disease, scientists say.

About 150 patients with mild cognitive impairment were tested using the 10-odor test every six months, as were 63 healthy elderly people who were tested annually for five years.

The researchers, from the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said the odor-identification test, which can be given in five to eight minutes, was a strong predictor of Alzheimer's.

The other seven smells, according to the researchers -- strawberry, smoke, soap, menthol, clove, pineapple and natural gas.

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Bush Nominates New U.S. Health Chief

Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Michael Leavitt is President Bush's choice to replace Tommy Thompson as the new U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In a Monday morning press conference, Bush called Leavitt an "ideal choice" to head the U.S. government's largest agency, according to an Associated Press account. The president also called Leavitt "a man of great compassion."

Leavitt, 53, was governor of Utah before he joined the Bush administration last year. If confirmed by the Senate, he'll lead an agency of 67,000 employees and a budget of some $500 billion, the AP said. HHS oversees the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, the National Institutes of Health, the recently embattled U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In his acceptance remarks, Leavitt said he looked forward to implementing the Medicare prescription drug benefit program for seniors beginning in 2006. He also said he would strive to reduce burgeoning health-care costs, and would pursue medical liability reform, the AP said.

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Stroke to Keep Dick Clark From Hosting New Year's Show

TV talk show star Regis Philbin will be the replacement host of "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2005," filling in for Clark who continues to recover from a stroke.

Clark, 75, suffered what was described as a mild stroke last week. The host of "American Bandstand" for many years, he recently disclosed he suffers from Type 2 diabetes, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, CNN reported.

In a statement released by his publicist Monday, Clark said, "I'm so glad that Regis hadn't yet made any New Year's plans. It'll feel strange watching it on TV but my doctors felt it was too soon. "

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Diabetes Vaccine Trials to Begin in Great Britain

British researchers are set to begin human trials of a vaccine for type 1 diabetes, BBC News Online reported Monday.

Seventy-two diabetic patients are set to participate in the studies beginning next spring, conducted by King's College London and Bristol University.

Type 1 diabetes, which tends to occur before age 40, is sometimes referred to as juvenile-onset diabetes. The vaccine, the researchers hope, will prevent the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic cells that allow the body to break down blood sugars. The cause of the disease isn't fully understood, the BBC report said.

Larger trials on people will follow if the initial testing goes well. The vaccine has already been successfully tested in mice, the network reported.

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