Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2005

NIH Announces Major Cancer Gene Research Project Former President Ford in Hospital Nine Companies Told to Stop Selling Unproven Anti-Flu Products Gene Therapy Studied as Parkinson's Treatment Researchers Create Mice With Human Brain Cells Japan Lifts U.S. Beef Ban

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

NIH Announces Major Cancer Gene Research Project

A three-year, $100-million program will be the starting point for a comprehensive effort to use genome-analysis technologies to learn more about the molecular basis of cancer, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Tuesday.

The overall effort is The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). It will begin with a pilot project that will develop and test the science and technology framework needed to systematically identify and characterize genetic mutations and other genomic changes involved in all forms of human cancer.

"Now is the time to move forward with this pioneering initiative. Thanks to the tools and technologies developed by the Human Genome Project and recent advances in using genetic information to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment, it is now possible to envision a systematic effort to map the changes in human genetic blueprint associated with all known forms of cancer," NIH Director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni said in a prepared statement.

"This atlas of genomic changes will provide new insights into the biological basis of cancer, which in turn will lead to new tests to detect cancer in its early, most treatable stages; new therapies to target cancer at its most vulnerable points; and, ultimately, new strategies to prevent cancer," Zerhouni said.


Former President Ford in Hospital

Former President Gerald Ford, 92, was hospitalized on Tuesday for what his aides termed routine medical tests that are scheduled each December, the Associated Press reported.

Ford's chief of staff, Penny Circle, said Ford would be released from Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., when the tests are completed.

"He's in for medical tests, routine tests. He's had a terrible cold and he still hasn't gotten over it," Circle told the AP.

In 2003, Ford was hospitalized after he experienced a dizzy spell while playing golf in hot weather. The former president also suffered a mild stroke while attending the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Ford was vice president to President Richard Nixon and became president in 1974 when the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.


Nine Companies Told to Stop Selling Unproven Anti-Flu Products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday told nine companies to stop selling products they're marketing as remedies for bird flu and other kinds of influenza. None of the products has been approved by the FDA.

The warning was issued to: Sacred Mountain Management Inc.;; Melvin Williams; Iceland Health Inc.; PolyCil Health Inc.; PRB Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Chozyn LLC;; and Healthworks 2000.

Claims used by the companies to promote their treatments include phrases such as "prevents avian flu," "a natural virus shield" and "kills the virus," the Associated Press reported.

"FDA is not aware of any scientific evidence that demonstrates the safety or effectiveness of these products for treating or preventing avian flu, and the agency is concerned that the use of these products could harm consumers or interfere with conventional treatments," an FDA statement said.

Warning letters were sent to the nine companies telling them they're presenting misleading and unproven claims. The companies have 15 days to respond to the FDA.


Gene Therapy Studied as Parkinson's Treatment

Different forms of gene therapy are being studied as potential new treatments for Parkinson's disease.

One approach being tested by University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Rush University researchers uses the nerve growth factor neurturin to protect and rescue dying brain cells that produce dopamine, the Associated Press reported.

Growth factors are protective proteins naturally found in healthy brains. Dopamine is a chemical that's essential for cellular communication that controls muscle movement. Parkinson's disease slowly destroys the brain cells that produce dopamine.

In a study, the UCSF and Rush loaded the gene for neurturin into a harmless virus injected into the brains of 12 people with Parkinson's disease. The study is designed to determine if this method is safe, not whether it is an effective treatment, the AP reported.

Other researchers at UCSF are trying to find a way to use gene therapy to extend the length of time that Parkinson's medication benefits patients.

A company called Neurologix Inc. recently released preliminary results from a study that used gene therapy in an attempt to calm the abnormal movements of 12 Parkinson's patients. A year after the treatment, there was some improvement in the patients, the AP reported.


Researchers Create Mice With Human Brain Cells

U.S. scientists have created mice with small amounts of human brain cells, according to a report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, led by Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diego, was done to make realistic animal models of human neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, the Associated Press reported.

To create the mice with human brain cells, the scientists injected 100,000 human embryonic stem cells into the brains of 14-day-old mouse embryos. The mice were born with about 0.1 percent of human brain cells.

The researchers said this trace amount of human brain cells doesn't restructure the brains of the mice and comes nowhere close to "humanizing" them, the AP reported.

The study may fuel ethical concerns about mixing human and animal cells.


Japan Lifts U.S. Beef Ban

On Saturday, the first shipment of U.S. beef to Japan since December 2003 will be sent on its way.

Japan slapped a ban on U.S. beef because of fears of mad cow disease, but it lifted the ban late Sunday. Japan imposed new restrictions that limit beef imports to animals 20 months or younger. There are also new paperwork and tracking requirements.

In response to the lifting of Japan's ban on U.S. beef, the United States said it would allow the importation of Japanese beef, the Associated Press reported.

Japan was once the biggest market for U.S. beef and it's expected that it will take a long time before U.S. beef regains its market share in Japan. That will require an advertising campaign to assure Japanese consumers that American beef is safe.

About 75 percent of people in Japan say they won't eat U.S. beef due to concern about mad cow disease, said a survey by Japan's Kyodo news agency.

"FDA is encouraged by the decision of the Japanese government to lift the temporary ban on imports of United States beef products," U.S. Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said in a prepared statement.

"We believe that this decision by Japan acknowledges the effectiveness of U.S. measures adopted over the years -- one of the most critical measures being FDA's ruminant feed ban -- to protect our country from ... mad cow disease."

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