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Health Highlights: June 1, 2005

Massachusetts, Connecticut OK Stem Cell Bills Hormone Appears to Increase Trust Sex Still Important in Middle Age: Survey Fast-Track Drug Approval System 'Broken': Report Gallstone Drug May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

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

Massachusetts, Connecticut OK Stem Cell Bills

Massachusetts lawmakers have overridden Gov. Mitt Romney's veto and approved a bill allowing "therapeutic cloning" of human embryos to harvest stem cells. And neighboring Connecticut has approved a 10-year, $100 million plan to fund stem cell research, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The Massachusetts bill became law immediately, and Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell is expected to sign her state's legislation, the AP said. A third state, California, has already passed a measure that could allocate up to $3 billion in stem cell funding.

Therapeutic cloning is used to create embryos for research, as opposed to "reproductive cloning" that theoretically could produce identical embryos to be used to create human life. The state bills prohibit reproductive cloning, which also is prohibited under federal law.

Scientists have devised ways to coax stem cells into transforming into various tissues that could one day lead to therapies for chronic diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, proponents say. But the use of these "master cells" is controversial, since the embryos must be destroyed in the process of harvesting them.

President George W. Bush has directed that federal funds be limited to research involving only existing stem cell lines.

In related news, South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk said Wednesday that he plans to open a world stem cell bank in his native country to grow patients' own replacement tissue, the AP reported. Last month, Hwang and his team at Seoul National University created the first embryonic stem cells that genetically matched those of sick patients, the wire service said.

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Hormone Appears to Increase Trust

Volunteers who used a nasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin became much more trusting and willing to invest their money, according to new research by Swiss scientists.

As reported in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, the researchers at the University of Zurich conceded that their findings could appeal to con artists and sleazy politicians. But the hormone's effects could also be used to treat cases of social phobia and similar conditions in which patients' trust is diminished, the researchers told the Associated Press.

Oxytocin is secreted in brain tissue and processed by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which also controls biological reactions like hunger and thirst, the scientists said.

Of the 178 male students from Zurich who took the hormone, 45 percent were willing to invest a maximum amount of theoretical cash they had been given. By contrast, 45 percent of those who didn't inhale the hormone were willing to invest only a minimal amount of money. Overall, people who received oxytocin were willing to invest 17 percent more than those who received a non-medicinal placebo, the researchers said.

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Sex Still Important in Middle Age: Survey

Sexual health is still an important element of quality of life, even after age 45, a new AARP survey finds.

The research involving almost 1,700 adults 45 and older revealed that:

  • Sixty percent of the respondents said sexual activity was a critical part of a good relationship, versus 55 percent in a comparable 1999 survey.
  • Sixty-three percent of men and women with partners described themselves as "extremely" or "somewhat" satisfied with their sex lives. At the same time, nearly one-third ranked their sex lives as somewhere between "yawn" and "bloody awful."
  • More than twice as many men as in 1999 (22 percent vs. 10 percent) said they used some type of drug or treatment to address sexual performance problems.

The latest survey was conducted by telephone and mail during March and April 2004, AARP said.

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Fast-Track Drug Approval System 'Broken': Report

Pharmaceutical companies are using the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's fast-track approval system to get drugs on the market without fully demonstrating their safety or effectiveness, says a congressional report to be released Wednesday.

The report said drug makers that receive fast-track approval from the FDA often don't keep their promises to conduct complete field trials and other studies after the drugs go on the market, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The fast-track system appears to be "broken and failing to ensure patient safety," said the report. The system, which makes new drugs quickly available to treat life-threatening illnesses, was created largely in response to the AIDS epidemic.

The system enables drug companies to get drugs approved after an abbreviated series of clinical trials. But the fast-track approvals require the companies to complete more thorough studies, as they would for any other new drug, the Times reported.

However, the report said that of the 91 studies that drug companies have pledged to conduct since the fast-track system was instituted in 1992, 42 have not been completed. Of those 42, half have not even been started, the newspaper said.

Drugs approved through the fast-track process can be sold without warnings or special restrictions and patients may not be aware that they're taking drugs that are still under study, the Times reported.

The congressional report was prepared by the staff of Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.

In response to the report, a pharmaceutical industry trade group said there's no evidence that the fast-track system has resulted in an increase in drug recalls.

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Gallstone Drug May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

A drug called ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) that's commonly used to treat gallstones may benefit people at high risk for colon cancer, says a University of Arizona study.

The study found that UCDA reduced the risk of dangerous precancerous growths in the bowel by nearly 40 percent, the Associated Press reported.

The findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"What we have is a drug that is commercially available, being used regularly, that is now an option for patients who are at very high risk for colon cancer," researcher Dr. David S. Alberts, director of the Arizona Cancer Center, told the AP.

The study results mean that UDCA may be added to the list of nontoxic agents, including calcium and aspirin, with a proven ability to reduce colon cancer risk, the news service reported.

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