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Health Highlights: June 13, 2005

Number of U.S. Residents With HIV Tops 1 Million Drug Patents Can't Influence Start of Research: Court Suspected Mad-Cow Animal Born Before Feed Ban: USDA Surgical Instruments Washed in Hydraulic Fluid Used on Thousands Practical Use of Cancer Research Delayed Too Long: Report FDA to Weigh Approval for Race-Based Heart Drug

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

Number of U.S. Residents With HIV Tops 1 Million

More than 1 million residents of the United States are believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. It's the first time that plateau has been reached since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, according to the Associated Press.

The statistic, while it shows that the government has by no means broken the deadly scourge, also reflects the success of anti-viral drugs that are keeping more infected people alive, the CDC noted.

Still, the government is sure to fall short of its decade-old goal to "break the back" of the epidemic by 2005 and cut the infection rate in half, the wire service noted. Roughly 40,000 American residents have become infected each year since the 1990s, the agency said.

The latest CDC estimates show blacks account for 47 percent of HIV cases, followed by gay and bisexual men at 45 percent, the AP said.


Drug Patents Can't Influence Start of Research: Court

Pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs can ignore competitors' patents in conducting research, so long as the new medicines aren't introduced before the patents expire, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

New Jersey-based Integra Neursociences had sued Germany's Merck KGaA, saying the latter had violated Integra's patent on certain molecules that Merck is using for current cancer medicine research. Integra's patent expires in 2006, the Associated Press said.

Merck, which has no connection with the U.S. company of a similar name, had argued that while it was respecting the patent holder's rights, its research was "reasonably related" to a future drug application that would be acted on by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only after Integra's patent expired.

Monday's Supreme Court ruling said that a U.S. FDA exemption passed in 1984 allowed for drug firms to conduct research using substances patented by their competitors without having to pay a licensing fee. It referred the case back to a lower court for additional consideration, the AP said.


Suspected Mad-Cow Animal Born Before Feed Ban: USDA

The animal that is suspected of being the second-ever U.S. bovine to harbor "mad cow" disease was born before implementation of 1997 rules designed to prevent parts of infected cows from being used in livestock feed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday.

The latest possible case of "mad cow" isn't confirmed, despite two positive results in preliminary "rapid screening" tests. Tissue samples from the bovine have been sent to a veterinary lab in England; more thorough results should be available sometime next week, the agency said.

Scientists say the most common way for animals to contract mad cow, clinically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is to eat the infected parts of other animals, the Bloomberg news service reported. If the latest case is confirmed as "mad cow," the fact that the animal was born before the 1997 rules took effect demonstrates that the feed restrictions have been working as designed, experts told the wire service.

Only one case of BSE has ever been confirmed in the United States, involving a Holstein found in Washington state in 2003. That animal was later traced to Canada, which has had three other cases, Bloomberg reported.


Surgical Instruments Washed in Hydraulic Fluid Used on Thousands

Surgical instruments washed in hydraulic fluid instead of detergent were used in operations last November and December on about 3,800 patients at two Duke University Health System hospitals in North Carolina, says a report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The federal agency said that Durham Regional and Duke Health Raleigh hospitals put patients in "immediate jeopardy" by not realizing there was a problem, even though medical staff complained that the instruments felt slick, the Associated Press reported.

It took weeks before the hospitals corrected the mix-up, which occurred when an elevator company drained hydraulic fluid into empty detergent barrels. The barrels were later picked up by a detergent supplier, which mistakenly redistributed the barrels and their contents as washing fluid.

In January, Duke health officials told patients who'd been operated on with the instruments washed in hydraulic fluid that their risk of infection was no greater than the risk normally associated with their procedures, the AP reported.

However, The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh reported Sunday that dozens of those patients have reported ongoing health issues ranging from joint pain and fatigue to problems requiring hospitalization.


Practical Use of Cancer Research Delayed Too Long: Report

It's taking too long to turn promising advances in cancer research into practical diagnosis and treatment methods that can actually be used on patients, according to a President's Cancer Panel report released Monday.

The report said there are multiple barriers that must be reduced or "the national investment in cancer research will be tragically squandered, for discoveries that do not lead to improved patient outcomes are tantamount to no discovery at all," the Associated Press reported.

The panel's report contains a number of recommendations. It said the U.S. National Cancer Institute should require hospitals designated as comprehensive cancer centers to provide their research findings to local oncologists and other cancer organizations.

The institute should also do more to increase community-level clinical trials, the report added, noting that most cancer clinical trials are conducted at academic medical centers but that at least 80 percent of cancer patients are treated by community oncologists, the AP reported.


FDA to Weigh Approval for Race-Based Heart Drug

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel this week will consider whether the heart failure drug BiDil should be approved for use only in black Americans, eight years after the FDA rejected the drug for use in the general public.

If it's approved, BiDil would be the first drug approved for use in one racial group.

When it rejected the drug in 1997, the FDA said studies supporting it were inconclusive, The New York Times reported.

However, proponents of BiDil refocused their efforts to get market approval for the drug. A study of 1,050 black American heart failure patients found that BiDil significantly reduced death and hospitalization. In response to the study findings, the American Heart Association labeled BiDil one of the major developments of 2004.

The drug increases levels of nitric oxide, which makes blood vessels widen.

The attempt by NitroMed Inc. to get the FDA to approve BiDil for one racial group has sparked heated debate. Many scientists say race is too broad and ill-defined a category to use as a basis for drug approval, the Times reported.

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