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Health Highlights: July 15, 2004

Drugmaker Employees Acquitted in Kickback Case Vioxx in High Doses Tied to Hypertension Kleenex to Roll Out Virus-Killing Tissue Cholesterol Panel Has Ties to Drugmakers Rumors Swirl Around Cheney's Heart Health Topical Cream Approved for Skin Cancer

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

Drugmaker Employees Acquitted in Kickback Case

A U.S. District Court jury in Boston acquitted eight current or former employees of the drug giant TAP Pharmaceutical Products of bribing and paying kickbacks to doctors in an attempt to win business for the company.

The Boston Globe reports that the verdict on conspiracy charges comes three years after TAP paid a record $885 million fine to settle similar allegations.

The employees were accused of offering ski trips, dinners, tickets to sporting events, and free drug samples to doctors. In exchange, the prosecutors said, they wanted the doctors to prescribe TAP's antacid Prevacid and the prostate cancer drug Lupron, according to the Globe account.

The defendants maintained the company's sales force was legally following -- or at least believed they were legally following -- confusing drug marketing rules.

"The government tried to put the pharmaceutical practices on trial and failed to prove that they violated any laws," the Globe quotes one defense lawyer, William Kettlewell, as saying.

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Vioxx in High Doses Tied to Hypertension

A new study finds consuming high doses of the painkiller Vioxx can raise blood pressure and leave users at a risk of heart trouble.

Still, Vanderbilt University researchers say doctors are prescribing high doses to a "substantial number" of patients.

The researchers said that 25 milligrams a day is the recommended dosage for long-term use. However, they found that one in 10 patients taking part in Tennessee's Medicaid program were being prescribed twice that dosage over a 30-day period.

The higher doses, though linked to cardiovascular problems, are no more effective for pain relief than the lower ones, the researchers argued. "This is really common with a lot of drugs, that there's a ceiling on the effective dose," Dr. Marie Griffin, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt, said in a statement. "But unfortunately, there's usually not a ceiling on the side effects."

The study appears in the June issue of Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety.

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Kleenex to Roll Out Virus-Killing Tissue

The makers of Kleenex say they've devised a tissue that not only will wipe your nose but kill germs in the process.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. on Wednesday announced that it will begin shipping its three-ply Kleenex Anti-Viral beginning in August. The company hopes to capitalize on bacterial-killing soaps and cleansers, which are now dominating the liquid soap market, the Associated Press reports.

The company said it's been working on a virus-killing facial tissue for years, and that customers want it. According to Kimberly-Clark, the antiviral -- it's in the middle layer of the tissue -- will kill up to 99.9 percent of cold and flu viruses within 15 minutes.

The new product is not without its doubters and detractors, including Dr. Ron Davis, a trustee with the American Medical Association.

"All of the hypothetical benefits have to be balanced against possible harm to public health, which may be the increasing resistance of microorganisms to medications," Davis told the AP. He also said he wanted to see more details about the tissue's effectiveness at killing viruses.

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Cholesterol Panel Has Ties to Drugmakers

Several panelists involved in drafting guidelines released this week that called for aggressive use of statin medications to combat high cholesterol had ties to major drug companies that could stand to profit by the new guidelines, Newsday reported Thursday.

Of the nine panelists, six had received grants or consulting fees from companies that produce the most popular statin drugs, the newspaper reported. The companies and the drugs they produce include Pfizer, Inc. (Lipitor), Bristol-Myers Squibb (Prevachol), Merck & Co., Inc. (Lovastatin), and AstraZeneca (Crestor).

The coordinator of the national Cholesterol Education Program, Dr. James Cleeman, called the omission of the panelists' ties an oversight. He told Newsday that the nature of the relationships would be posted soon on the Web site of the program's parent agency, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

While experts consulted by the newspaper said they didn't doubt the integrity of the panelists and their recommendations, they said the information should have been disclosed initially.

Some 36 million people in the United States are already taking statins, earning the drugs' manufacturers $20 billion annually, the newspaper reported.

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Rumors Swirl Around Cheney's Heart Health

Rumors about the heart health of Vice President Dick Cheney and his physical fitness to serve a second term are racing through political circles "like the latest low-carb diet," the New York Times reported Thursday.

The latest theory surrounds Cheney's recent dismissal of his doctor -- the one who in 2000 had pronounced the Vice Presidential candidate fit to undergo the rigors of four years in office. Dr. Gary Malakoff had declared Cheney "up to the task" despite the vice president's history of heart disease, the newspaper reported.

The Cheney camp has said Malakoff was dropped after the physician conceded he was addicted to prescription painkillers, according to the Times. But rumor has it that the real reason the doctor was dismissed is so Cheney could find a new one, who would subsequently find that the vice president's heart health renders him unable to serve again. This would spare President Bush from having to publicly drop Cheney, who some see as a political liability.

A spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign dismisses the rumor as "inside-the-Beltway coffee talk." Nonetheless, Washington is said to be abuzz in speculation that a replacement for Cheney could include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

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Topical Cream Approved for Skin Cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the topical cream Aldara (imiquimod), already approved to treat genital warts, to treat a mild form of skin cancer called superficial basal cell carcinoma (sBCC).

The approval recommends the cream when the more preferred treatment method, surgical removal, is medically inappropriate, the agency said in a statement.

In clinical studies, 75 percent of sBCC patients had no evidence of the cancer after 12 weeks of treatment with the cream, the FDA said. A separate study found 79 percent of patients sBCC free two years after treatment with the drug, which is manufactured by 3M Pharmaceuticals.

Side effects noted during the trials included skin reactions at the treatment site, including redness, swelling, peeling, itching, and burning.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, affecting at least 800,000 Americans annually, the FDA said.

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