Health Highlights: Dec. 7, 2003

NIH Officials Often Consult for Drug Companies: Report Campaign Seeks to Curtail School Bullying Experimental Breast Cancer Drug Shows Promise New Breast Cancer Test May Predict Recurrence Pot Smoking Damages Lungs

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

NIH Officials Often Consult for Drug Companies: Report

Some top officials at the National Institutes of Health -- an agency once known as an advocate of scientific inquiry on behalf of the American public -- have received hundreds of thousands of dollars each in consulting fees from drug companies whose products they were responsible for monitoring, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In some cases, those officials were acting as consultants to companies whose drugs were connected to deaths of patients involved in NIH trials, the newspaper says.

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, who as deputy director and acting director of the agency since 1993 approved many of the consulting arrangements, told the newspaper she did not believe the officials' actions had compromised the public's interest.

"I think NIH scientists, NIH directors and all the staff are highly ethical people with enormous integrity," she said. "And I think we do our business in the most remarkable way."

She said she would "think about" whether administrators should learn more about a company's ties to the NIH before approving the consulting arrangements, the newspaper reports.

Medical ethicists such as Dr. Arnold S. Relman, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, said that private consulting by government scientists posed "legitimate cause for concern."

"If I am a scientist working in an NIH lab and I get a lot of money in consulting fees, then I'm going to want to make sure that the company does very well," Relman told the newspaper.

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Campaign Seeks to Curtail School Bullying

With the growing awareness that bullying if far from a harmless rite of childhood passage, the federal government is planning a $3.4 million campaign to combat the practice.

The government will join forces with more than 70 education, law enforcement, civic and religious groups to identify bullying as a public health concern. The campaign, expected to start next year, will target school children and the adults who influence them, the Associated Press reports.

The aim is a culture change in which bullying is portrayed as uncool. Other goals: To teach parents the warning signs of bullying, encourage children to stand up for each other, and train teachers to intervene when problems arise, the news agency says.

The campaign will include a Web site, commercials, and a network of nonprofit groups to help raise awareness and offer tips.

An estimated three in 10 American school children are affected by bullying, either as a bully, a victim or both, the AP says, citing a 2001 study of students in sixth through 10th grades that was done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Bullying has also been blamed on some of the fatal school shootings that have erupted across the United States in recent years

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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 was presented at a British Thoracic Society meeting.

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