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Health Highlights: Jan. 8, 2005

Dental Floss Better Than Mouthwash, Judge Rules FDA Approves New Form of Breast Cancer Drug Canada Mad Cow Probe Widens U.S. Chief Justice to Miss Start of 2005 Court Session Another Study Links Hormone Therapy With Stroke

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

Dental Floss Better Than Mouthwash, Judge Rules

Calling a Listerine print and TV ad campaign false, misleading and a public health risk, a federal judge has ruled that mouthwash is no substitute for dental floss.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said in a written ruling made public Friday in New York that he expected to order Pfizer Inc. as early as Monday to stop claiming that its product, Listerine, is as effective as floss at reducing plaque and gingivitis between teeth.

The ruling came after McNeil-PPC Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, filed a lawsuit saying that false claims in an advertising campaign that began last June posed an unfair threat against its sales of dental floss, the Associated Press reported.

"Dentists and hygienists have been telling their patients for decades to floss daily," the judge wrote. "They have been doing so for good reason. The benefits of flossing are real -- they are not a 'myth.' Pfizer's implicit message that Listerine can replace floss is false and misleading."

The judge said he found it "highly troubling" that Pfizer took the position in the lawsuit that floss can be replaced by Listerine even though it had told dental professionals for two years that it was not suggesting that was the case, AP reported.

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FDA Approves New Form of Breast Cancer Drug

A new form of the widely used cancer drug Taxol that is easier to administer and avoids some side effects has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The drug, Abraxane, was approved for women with advanced breast cancer who have not responded to chemotherapy, the drug's marketer, American Pharmaceutical Partners, announced late Friday. An F.D.A. spokeswoman confirmed the approval but had no other comment, The New York Times reported.

Taxol, sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb and known generically as paclitaxel, has to be dissolved in a toxic solvent and must be given through special intravenous tubes because the solvent can leach the plastic off the tubes normally used to deliver chemotherapy. The drug causes some side effects, including severe allergic reactions. To avoid the reactions, patients are usually given steroids and antihistamines in advance, and those drugs carry their own side effects.

Abraxane consists of microscopic particles of paclitaxel bound to albumin, a common protein in the blood. It can be given in greater doses before the side effects become intolerable and it does away with the need for the toxic solvent and the steroids and antihistamines.

"That's hands-down an improvement" in terms of how the drug is administered, Dr. Melody A. Cobleigh, director of the comprehensive breast center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told the Times. But she added, "As far as whether it's going to be an advance in terms of curing breast cancer, I think we'll have to wait for further trials."

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Canada Mad Cow Probe Widens

Canadian officials said Friday that cattle potentially infected with mad cow disease may have been eaten by humans, but stressed the chance of contracting a potentially fatal illness is extremely low.

The officials also said that one cow in the suspect herd on an Alberta farm may have been shipped to the United States.

CBC reported that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was tracking 141 cattle from the farm where an 8-year-old dairy cow was confirmed on Jan. 2 to have the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Some of these cows may have been made into animal or human food, agency spokesman Dr. Gary Little told a news conference in Ottawa.

But he and other officials downplayed the risk to consumers, even though BSE can cause the human disease of Creutzfeldt-Jakob that killed at least 40 people in Britain in the 1990s.

Little said investigators from his agency, with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were tracking a total of 93 dairy and 48 beef cattle from the farm to see whether the animals could have been exposed. They have quarantined nine dairy cattle born on the farm a year before and a year after the infected animal was delivered in October 1996 and plan to begin killing and testing the animals for BSE next week.

Little said 28 of the dairy cows are unaccounted for. The males born from dairy cows were probably slaughtered at a young age, and thus at little risk for carrying BSE, he added.

U.S. Senators Conrad Burns of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, along with Representative Henry Waxman, of California, urged the Agriculture Department to delay its decision about reopening the border to Canadian cattle on March 7, according to the Bloomberg news service.

The border has been shut since since May 2003 when the first case of BSE was confirmed in a dairy cow from an Alberta farm. The only known U.S. case was in a dairy animal found in Washington state in December 2003 and later traced to Canada. Canada normally ships about 1.7 million cattle across the border, or about 5 percent of the annual U.S. slaughter.

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U.S. Chief Justice to Miss Start of 2005 Court Session

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, recovering from thyroid cancer, still isn't well enough to open the U.S. Supreme Court's first session of 2005, the court said in a statement issued Friday.

"Continuing secretions caused by his tracheotomy and radiation therapy" will cause the 80-year-old chief justice to miss at least Monday's first day of arguments, the statement said. Rehnquist hasn't attended a court session since Oct. 13, according to the Bloomberg news service.

Rehnquist has undergone a tracheotomy, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation. Experts told the news service that this treatment plan is usually associated with a particularly deadly form of the disease called anaplastic cancer.

Rehnquist, the court's longest-serving justice, was appointed in 1972 and became chief justice in 1986. The nation's high court hasn't had a vacancy since 1994.

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Another Study Links Hormone Therapy With Stroke

Use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by menopausal women was struck another blow by a new study that showed HRT was found to increase the risk of stroke by almost one-third.

The analysis, reported in the Jan. 8 British Medical Journal, pooled results of 28 trials involving nearly 40,000 women. The risk of ischemic stroke, caused by an insufficient supply of blood to the brain, rose by 29 percent in women on HRT, according to an account in the Times of London. Fatal or disabling strokes of all types rose by 56 percent among these women, the newspaper said.

The trials analyzed included a 2002 U.S. Women's Health Initiative study that linked HRT to an increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack, stroke and life-threatening blood clots. That trial, involving some 17,000 women over age 50, found that HRT use boosted participants' risk of stroke by 41 percent, the Times reported.

Researchers who conducted the fresh review from Britain's University of Nottingham advised that patients at higher risk of stroke should stop taking HRT unless there was a strong medical need to do so.

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