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Health Highlights: Feb. 22, 2004

Journal Editor Apologizes for Autism-Vaccination ArticleFDA Chief Named to Head Up Medicare and Medicaid Mayors Urge Feds to Help on Canada Drug Imports Drug Company Warns on Anti-Psychotic for Elderly Experimental Lung Cancer Vaccine Shows Promise

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

Journal Editor Apologizes for Autism-Vaccination Article

The editor of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet apologized Saturday for publishing a controversial 1998 study that claimed a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Calling the 1998 article that linked the triple vaccination of mumps, rubella and measles (MMR) with autism a "fatal conflict of interest," Lancet editor Dr. Richard Horton told the media that Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his team never told the journal editors they were being paid by a legal aid service looking into whether families could sue over the immunizations.

The Associated Press reports that Wakefield's study suggested that the MMR vaccine could put children at risk of autism, a developmental disorder that first appears in small children. The study also said there was a link between MMR and inflammatory bowel disease.

Later studies have largely disproved the original findings, the wire service said, but many parents have used the initial conclusions to resist having their children vaccinated against the common childhood diseases.


FDA Chief Named to Head Up Medicare and Medicaid

Unlike many of his judicial appointments, President George W. Bush probably won't have much difficulty in getting the Senate to approve his choice to head up the U.S. government's massive Medicare and Medicaid program.

The President has named Dr. Mark B. McClellan, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to run the huge health insurance program used by more than 70 million Americans.

The New York Times reports that McClellan, 40, has been so deft at dodging the politics of drug approval process at the FDA that he should be endorsed by Democrats as well as Republicans.

The newspaper quotes Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as saying that McClellan was "a superb choice." And, adds the Times, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee says, "Dr. McClellan was an expert resource throughout last year's Medicare prescription drug negotiations. I found him to be a straight shooter who doesn't allow politics to get in the way of good policy."

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is a huge regulator of the nation's health care system, the newspaper says. It spends more than $480 billion a year.

There's also a family connection with the Bush administration. Mark McClellan's brother is White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Their mother is the Texas comptroller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who has been reported as being interested in becoming governor.


Mayors Urge Feds to Help on Canada Drug Imports

Twelve mayors from four New England states are urging federal officials to structure a safer way to import prescription drugs from Canada.

Saying consumer safety measures would smooth the way for legal cross-border bulk purchases of medication, the mayors signed a letter Friday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson asking for federal action to certify the safety of drugs bought from Canadian suppliers.

"Certification, with the introduction of new standards, will reduce the harm that Americans are currently exposed to when they purchase drugs over the Internet and through other unmanaged sources," the letter said according to the Associated Press.

Safety has been one of the federal government's main objections to purchasing drugs from Canada. Such purchases are currently illegal but have been gaining in popularity as cash-strapped U.S. cities and states look for ways to save money.

Boston's mayor has met with officials from the Food and Drug Administration about the city's pilot program to give about 11,000 city employees and retirees the option of filling prescriptions by mail from Canadian suppliers. Despite FDA objections, the mayor says he intends to move forward with the plan on July 1 and expects the city to save about $1.5 million per year.

The mayor of Springfield, Mass., has already begun buying drugs from Canada. And Burlington, Vt., Mayor Peter Clavelle said his city's employees will be able to buy drugs from Canada starting March 1.

Earlier this week, the world's largest prescription drug producer, Pfizer, cut supplies to some Canadian firms that funnel lower-cost medications across the border to the United States.


Drug Company Warns on Anti-Psychotic for Elderly

Eli Lilly and Co. is warning doctors and psychiatrists that elderly patients suffering from dementia face a higher risk of stroke if they use the company's top-selling drug, the anti-psychotic Zyprexa.

Lilly issued the warning, in a letter sent nationwide Jan. 15, based on findings from recent clinical trials of Zyprexa, Lilly spokesman Dan Collins told the Associated Press. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not require the warning, he added.

The Zyprexa patients, who account for about 2 percent of the drug's annual $4 billion in sales, were more likely to suffer a stroke than those taking a placebo in clinical trials that were conducted to see if the drug would benefit them, Collins said. The Zyprexa patients also had a higher risk of death from all causes than those using a placebo.

Zyprexa, introduced in 1996, is not approved for use in elderly patients with dementia, although some doctors do use the drug on a so-called "off-label" basis to help such patients get through episodes of dementia. Because of the test findings, Lilly will not seek FDA approval for Zyprexa to treat older patients with dementia, Collins said.


Experimental Lung Cancer Vaccine Shows Promise

Scientists have developed an experimental vaccine that could be used to block the progress of lung cancer. A small study suggests it could delay the recurrence of tumors in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of the cancer.

Doctors called the research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, encouraging. Currently, treatment options for patients with this type of lung cancer are limited.

Scientists from the University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, who carried out the study, said this was the first time a vaccine had been shown to be effective against this type of cancer, according to a BBC report.

The researchers followed 43 patients -- 10 who had early-stage cancer and 33 who had advanced stage cancer. Surgeons removed their tumors and the patients were then injected with a vaccine that included cells from their tumor and a gene called CM-CSF, which changed the surface of the cells to help the body identify them as cancerous. The body's immune cells then began to recognize, attack and destroy the cancer cells in the lungs.

The patients were given an injection of the GVAX vaccine every two weeks for three months. A small number of patients were still free of cancer three years after they were vaccinated. In others, the vaccine appeared to delay the recurrence of cancer for several months.

The research, which was designed to look at the vaccine's safety, was funded in part by Cell Genesys, a pharmaceutical company that hopes to produce it.


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