Health Highlights: Dec. 6, 2003

Experimental Breast Cancer Drug Shows Promise New Breast Cancer Test May Predict Recurrence Pot Smoking Damages Lungs Women Surpass Men in Medical School Applications Ohio Hospital Bans Employee Smoking -- Even Outdoors U.K. Vows War on Hospital 'Superbugs'

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

Experimental Breast Cancer Drug Shows Promise

An experimental new cancer drug called Abraxane is significantly more effective than standard therapies and doesn't produce many of the serious side effects, researchers report.

Abraxane is a form of paclitaxel, the generic name for Taxol, which is used to treat various forms of cancer. In a trial of 460 women with breast cancer that had spread to other parts of their bodies, tumors were reduced by 33 percent or showed slower growth in those who received Abraxane, compared with 19 percent of the patients given Taxol, The New York Times reports.

The findings were presented Friday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

"I think this drug really has a significant potential to benefit women with breast cancer," Dr. Edith A. Perez, director of the breast cancer program at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., told the newspaper. "I think it's a major breakthrough," added Perez, who was not involved in the clinical trial.

Abraxane is being developed by American Pharmaceutical Partners.

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New Breast Cancer Test May Predict Recurrence

A new genetic test could help doctors predict a woman's likelihood of recurring breast cancer and whether she should undergo chemotherapy, The New York Times reports.

The test, described at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, rates the activity levels of 21 genes in a sample of a breast tumor to produce a "recurrence score." In trials funded by the Silicon Valley biotech firm that developed the test, 6.8 percent of women with a low recurrence score had a relapse in the 10 years after the original tumor was removed, while 30.5 percent of those with a high score had a recurrence.

While the test appears far from accurate, experts say, it could save some women from undergoing the often-debilitating effects of chemotherapy. Cancer recurs in about 15 percent of cases where the original tumor is removed and a woman is placed on the standard tumor-inhibiting treatment -- tamoxifen, the newspaper reports. But many of these women get chemotherapy as a precaution, anyway.

The test, produced by Genomic Health of Redwood City, Calif., could offer a better way for doctors to predict a recurrence, its developers say. Currently, physicians base their predictions on factors like the patient's age and size, and the tumor's aggressiveness.

The test, likely to be available early next year, is expected to cost $3,000 or more, the Times reports.

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Pot Smoking Damages Lungs

Smoking marijuana may be more dangerous to your lungs than you think.

A study by researchers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, found that even short-term use of marijuana can damage the lungs of young people, BBC News Online reports.

The researchers tested the lungs of nonsmokers, cigarette smokers, and people who smoked marijuana. They found that the lungs of marijuana users had more damage than cigarette smokers' lungs.

The study, presented at a British Thoracic Society meeting, concluded that less than six years of smoking marijuana was enough to cause significant lung damage.

"The consensus among many young people who use cannabis seems to be that they will not suffer any long-term effects as long as they stop smoking it early enough," researcher Dr. Sarah Nuttall told BBC News.

"However this is clearly not the case. Our study shows that even short- term use of cannabis in addition to tobacco use does have an impact and makes a serious difference to lung function," Nuttall said.

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Women Surpass Men in Medical School Applications

This fall marked a historic milestone for U.S. medical schools as, for the first time ever, more women than men applied to learn how to become doctors.

Overall, nearly 35,000 people applied for medical school in 2003-04, an increase of 3.4 per cent over last year. It's the first increase since 1996, the Associated Press reports.

More than 17,600 of this year's applicants --50.8 percent -- were women, according to figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Despite submitting more applications, women still lagged behind the number of men actually entering medical school. Women accounted for 49.7 percent of the more than 16,500 new students entering the nation's medical schools this year.

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Ohio Hospital Bans Employee Smoking -- Even Outdoors

A Columbus, Ohio, pediatric hospital says it's taking the nation's anti-smoking crusade a step further -- by banning the practice by employees anywhere on its grounds, even outside.

Starting May 1, any employee at Children's Hospital will have to walk several blocks until they're off the hospital campus, the Associated Press reports. Visitors will be the only ones allowed to continue using the outdoor smoking huts.

The hospital's security staff will enforce the ban, says President and CEO Keith Goodwin. He calls it "counterintuitive" for the hospital's health professionals to be discussing the dangers of smoking while they're standing outside puffing at incoming visitors.

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U.K. Vows War on Hospital 'Superbugs'

The British government is declaring war on drug-resistant "superbugs" that plague the nation's hospitals, BBC News Online reports.

The plan will require every hospital to have a director of infection control responsible for enforcing strict hygiene rules and tracking down potential sources of infection.

Directors also will encourage staff members to practice safe hygiene habits -- some as simple as mandatory hand washing.

Hospital-acquired infections cost the British health-care system more than $1 billion a year, infecting as many as 100,000 patients and killing thousands, the BBC report says.

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