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Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2004

Companies Target Once-Daily HIV Pill Pfizer Suspends Celebrex Advertising FDA Approves Drug for Age-Related Macular Degeneration Low-Carb Diet Craze Losing Fans Seniors Support Use of Medical Marijuana Pentagon Wants to Resume Anthrax Shots

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

Companies Target Once-Daily HIV Pill

A once-daily pill to control HIV infection could be available in less than a year.

Two drug companies -- Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Gilead Sciences, Inc.-- announced Monday that they will collaborate on the first daily, single treatment for the virus that causes AIDS.

Current AIDS treatments typically require patients to take two to four pills a day. That's a huge improvement over a decade ago, when many patients had to take 25 to 30 pills a day, often at precise times and under specific conditions (such as with food). This made is hard for patients to adhere to the complex regimen. And missing medications makes it easier for the virus to mutate and become drug-resistant, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The two companies have formed a joint venture to test and market a single pill combining three widely available medicines from two different classes of AIDS drugs. The move marks the first collaboration by competing AIDS drugmakers, the AP said.

Since the three different drugs are already on the market, the once-daily pill could be approved and for sale as soon as the second half of 2006, said David Rosen, a Bristol-Myers Squibb spokesman.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the AP, "To have it all in a single pill is terrific."

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Pfizer Suspends Celebrex Advertising

Pfizer Inc. is indefinitely suspending all consumer advertising of its arthritis drug Celebrex, following last week's revelation of a study that showed high doses caused an increased risk of heart attacks among cancer patients.

A company spokeswoman said the firm made the decision after discussing the matter with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is considering strict label warnings or even banning the painkiller, The New York Times reported Monday. The FDA said it urged Pfizer to enact a freeze on the ads.

Pfizer spent $71 million advertising Celebrex to Americans in the first nine months of the year, the newspaper said. The company said it will continue to market the drug to doctors.

On Sunday, Pfizer chairman Hank McKinnell said the company was committed to keeping Celebrex on the market, despite the new findings. Different study results prompted Merck & Co. to remove Vioxx, a similar and competing drug, from the market in September.

McKinnell, who said Celebrex was still an "appropriate option" for many patients, said the company would strive to inform doctors of the potential risks.

Both Vioxx and Celebrex -- and a second Pfizer drug called Bextra -- belong to a class of painkillers called cox-2 inhibitors, which became popular because they relieve pain without causing gastrointestinal distress. The FDA's acting commissioner, Dr. Lester Crawford, has expressed "great concern" about the safety of cox-2 inhibitors in light of the latest studies.

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FDA Approves Drug for Age-Related Macular Degeneration

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday the approval of Macugen (pegaptanib sodium injection), a new therapy to slow vision loss in people with the eye disease wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

"Macugen is among the first treatments to target the underlying biology of wet age-related macular degeneration," said Dr. Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the FDA. "Macugen provides a needed addition to the treatment of patients with this disease."

AMD, a retinal disease that causes severe and irreversible vision loss, is a major cause of blindness in people older than 55. Untreated, the majority of eyes affected with wet AMD may become functionally blind. Wet AMD, which makes up about 10 percent of AMD cases, is caused by the growth of abnormal leaky blood vessels that eventually damage the area of the eye responsible for central vision, the FDA said.

The safety and efficacy of Macugen was studied in two trials in patients with wet AMD for two years. Patients treated with the drug showed a significant decrease in vision loss in both trials, the FDA said.

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Low-Carb Diet Craze Losing Fans

Americans may be losing interest in the low-carb diet craze faster than they were shedding pounds, a new survey finds.

People on high-protein, low-carb regimens fell to 4.9 percent in November, compared with 9.1 percent in February, according to a new study by the independent marketing company NPD Group.

The poll also found that virtually none of those surveyed was cutting carbohydrates by the recommended amounts, according to the Associated Press.

While some have labeled Atkins-like diets a fad, much like liquid and low-fat diets of the past, ardent supporters say the Atkins plan has been around for 30 years and won't disappear.

"It did teach me to watch what I eat and drink," Dave Champlin, a pro-Atkins Missouri college student, told the wire service. "I'm not going to go back to how I ate before."

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Seniors Support Use of Medical Marijuana

Marijuana should be legalized for medical use, nearly three-fourths of participants in a new AARP poll said. Among participating seniors 70 and older, 69 percent supported legal use of medical marijuana.

AARP, with nearly 35 million members, has taken no official position on the issue, according to the Associated Press. The question, which has come up on scores of state ballots in recent elections, is also at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case to be decided next year.

More than half of those questioned in the AARP poll -- 37 percent of whom were AARP members, said they believe marijuana has medical benefits. Moreover, 30 percent conceded they had smoked marijuana at least once.

The poll of 1,700 adults, age 45 and older, was conducted Nov. 10-21. Its sampling error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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Pentagon Wants to Resume Anthrax Shots

The Department of Defense, insisting that servicemen are still at great risk of becoming exposed to anthrax in the Mideast and South Korea, wants to resume inoculating them against the bacteria.

The New York Times reports that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz wrote a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson requesting that military officials have access to the vaccine.

In October, a federal judge ordered the military to stop requiring troops to be vaccinated without their consent. The judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, found that in approving the vaccine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration didn't follow procedures requiring it to seek public comment on the safety and effectiveness of shots before approving them, the Times reports.

Wolfowitz, citing a classified intelligence assessment, said in his letter that "there is a significant potential for a military emergency involving a heightened risk to United States military forces of attack with anthrax."

The health agency has the authority to respond to a terrorist attack or other emergency by allowing the military to use some drugs, and a spokesman said the department will consider the Pentagon request, according to the Times account.

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