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Health Highlights: Dec. 7, 2004

Pfizer Will Yield Zoloft Documents in Murder Case Baseball Chief Selig Has Skin Cancer Surgery Device Translates Brain Electricity Into Action Medicare Drug Plan Carves Nation Into 34 Regions Lawsuit Charges Accutane Maker Ignored MD's Advice

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

Pfizer Will Yield Zoloft Documents in Murder Case

Pfizer, Inc., announced Tuesday that it will surrender internal research papers on its antidepressant Zoloft to attorneys representing a boy charged with murdering his grandparents while he took the drug.

A South Carolina Circuit Court judge ordered the company last week to turn over the documents, which contain data from clinical trials, the Associated Press reported.

"We'll be doing whatever the court has requested us to do," the wire service quoted Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins as saying.

Christopher Pittman, 15, is facing trial for fatally shooting his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, three years ago while they were asleep. His lawyers argue that the documents will show that Zoloft led the boy to kill.

An attorney working with the defense team, who has represented plaintiffs in lawsuits against makers of antidepressants, said Christopher was prescribed Zoloft for a condition not listed on the drug's label weeks before the slayings, and that his dose was increased just days before, the AP reported.

The attorney, Andy Vickery, said the documents would be "damning," but Pfizer's Haskins predicted they would not be relevant to the trial, which is expected to start early next year.

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Baseball Chief Selig Has Skin Cancer Surgery

Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig had surgery Monday to remove a cancerous lesion from his forehead, the organization announced.

"The skin lesion was discovered as part of a routine annual medical examination last month, and a skin biopsy confirmed the diagnosis," said a statement from the commissioner's office. "There is no evidence that the melanoma has extended beyond the skin. In addition to the removal of the lesion, minor skin grafting was performed."

Selig, 70, was expected to be back in his office later this week to discuss the unfolding scandal of steroid use by some star players, including Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

Selig has said he supports a tougher anti-steroid policy. "I understand the need for swift and resolute action," he said in a statement Monday.

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Device Translates Brain Electricity Into Action

A device that reads electricity radiated by the brain and translates it into action has been developed by scientists at the New York State Department of Health and the State University of New York.

The device enables people to control a computer cursor just by thinking about it. Unlike previous systems, it doesn't require electrodes to be wired directly into the brain. It's been successfully tested on four people.

The system uses software to translate faint electricity that's naturally radiated by the brain into direct action, the Los Angeles Times reported.

This could prove an important advance in developing ways for paralyzed people to use their thoughts to operate prosthetic devices or computers.

"It is an impressive achievement. Such a device has great potential to improve the lives of paralyzed individuals," John Donoghue, a senior scientist at Brown University who wasn't involved in the research, told the Times.

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Medicare Drug Plan Carves Nation Into 34 Regions

The Bush administration has devised a plan to make Medicare drug benefits available to the elderly in 2006 by dividing the nation into 34 regions, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Medicare will rely heavily on government-subsidized private insurers to administer the drug benefits, which will be uniform among states in a single region but could vary among neighboring states in different regions, the newspaper said.

The White House had wanted larger regions, but the private insurers consulted said they couldn't provide coverage for such wide areas, including large rural regions that traditionally had been shunned, the Times reported. The insurers said their level of risk increases with the size of the region.

Some of the areas still wind up being rather large, including one covering all of California and its 4.3 million Medicare beneficiaries, the newspaper said. The largest region in sheer territory covers seven states -- Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming -- which have a combined 1.9 million Medicare participants.

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Lawsuit Charges Accutane Maker Ignored MD's Advice

The Swiss drug giant Hoffman-La Roche ignored a company doctor's advice that users of the acne drug Accutane be monitored for signs of depression, according to a USA Today account of a Florida lawsuit.

The suit alleges that the company physician's advice to add a warning to Accutane's drug label was ignored after company marketing officials argued that the alert could hinder sales or prompt legal action, according to federal court documents cited by the newspaper.

There has been no scientific finding of a link between the drug and depression, the newspaper said, although a senior Roche official reportedly testified in a pretrial deposition in the Florida case that Accutane "probably caused" depression in some users.

The drug has been shown to cause serious birth defects in the fetuses of some women who use the drug during pregnancy. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration researcher last month told a Congressional hearing that Accutane should be studied as one of five drugs that could be dangerous enough to prompt its withdrawal from the market.

The Florida lawsuit was filed on behalf of 15-year-old Charles Bishop, who committed suicide in 2002 by stealing a small plane and flying it into a Tampa skyscraper. Bishop began taking Accutane eight months before the incident, his family said.

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