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Health Highlights: June 14, 2005

Brain Cells Grown in Lab Dish Heart Valve Trials Halted After Patient Deaths Hospitalizations for Diabetes Decline Medicare Cuts Make It Hard to Get Infection Drug: Report Canada Can't Solve U.S. Prescription Drug Problem: Ambassador Heart Device Makers Lack Public Warning Guidelines

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

Brain Cells Grown in Lab Dish

Scientists have been able to recreate the body's process of regenerating brain cells -- in a lab dish.

In a statement, the University of Florida scientists said that by replicating the clinical process called neurogenesis, they theoretically could produce a limitless supply of a person's own brain cells, perhaps providing therapies for brain-damaging conditions including Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

The process was accomplished using mice cells, but may ultimately translate to people, the researchers said. The technique could produce far more brain cells than the body could on its own, the researchers wrote in the June 13-17 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists said they acted on decade-old findings that the natural development of certain brain cells is very similar to the lifelong production of human blood cells. The fact that the brain continues to make these cells even in adulthood countered the old notion that people were born with a fixed amount of brain cells that must last throughout their lives, the researchers said.


Heart Valve Trials Halted After Patient Deaths

A California biotech company says it has suspended human trials testing the effectiveness of a technique to replace failing aortic valves without open heart surgery. Edwards Lifesciences said "more than one" of the 10 participants in the study had died, and others had experienced serious complications, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The company said it hoped to resume the trial using a refined version of the technique, the Times said. The original trial, which enrolled its first patient in March, was being conducted at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

The procedure involved placing a new valve at the end of a catheter inserted into a thigh vein. It culminated in a tricky procedure to pass the valve through the heart to the site of the aortic valve, the newspaper said. The valve controls the flow of blood as it leaves the heart.

The company said it hoped to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to resume the trial employing an updated technique by year's end.


Hospitalizations for Diabetes Decline

Hospitalizations for diabetes-related problems in the United States fell significantly between 1994 and 2002, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report.

The rate dropped from 10 per 1,000 people with diabetes to four per 1,000, USA Today reported. The study didn't indicate reasons for the decline, but a CDC spokesman cited improved diabetes therapies and earlier diagnosis and treatment, the newspaper said.

The CDC also announced a 30 percent drop in the incidence of end-stage kidney disease between 1996 and 2002. A spokeswoman cited better treatment of two primary risk factors -- high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels.


Medicare Cuts Make It Hard to Get Infection Drug: Report

Medicare financing cuts have made it difficult for hundreds of people to acquire a blood-derived drug called intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) they need to prevent life-threatening infections.

Medicare cuts have caused doctors to stop offering the expensive drug to Medicare recipients. Instead, doctors are sending those patients to hospitals for care. Some patients say they're months overdue for infusions of IVIG, the Associated Press reported.

The situation has led top blood experts to declare a crisis. The effects of the Medicare cuts could eventually extend to other patients because hospitals are concerned about their own supplies of IVIG, the AP said.

In May, the U.S. government's blood advisers asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to declare a public health emergency. This would allow Medicare to increase payments to doctors for IVIG. HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt is considering that recommendation, the AP reported.

IVIG is a mixture of antibodies, which are infection-fighting proteins that healthy people normally have in their bloodstream. Given intravenously, it's mainly used for many of the 50,000 Americans who suffer primary immunodeficiency, 7,000 of whom receive Medicare, the news service said.


Canada Can't Solve U.S. Prescription Drug Problem: Ambassador

Americans shouldn't look to Canada to solve the problem of gaining access to low-cost prescription drugs, Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna told the Associated Press in an interview Monday.

McKenna said the Canadian government feels caught in the middle of the discussions in Congress about whether to allow more importation into the United States of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

That debate masks the larger issue of how prescription drug prices should be set in the United States, McKenna said.

"Don't think you are doing any favors to us by trying to open the United States market for Canadian drugs because you are not," he told the AP. "If you are doing that, you are doing it for your own reasons and you are avoiding dealing with the fundamental question of your drug pricing."

McKenna also dismissed U.S. Food and Drug Administration concerns about the safety of drugs sold in Canada. He said Canada's drug regulatory process was more stringent than the U.S. one, the AP reported.


Heart Device Makers Lack Public Warning Guidelines

Companies that make pacemakers and other heart devices have no uniform standards about when -- or even if -- to alert doctors and patients should those products have flaws, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Each manufacturer decides on its own whether to publicly disclose a flaw in a product, cardiologists and other experts told the Times. Patient safety isn't the only factor in such decisions. Legal liability and potential loss of business to competitors also influence whether manufacturers notify doctors and patients about flawed products, the newspaper said.

A recent case involving Guidant Corporation has increased calls for uniform guidelines. The company failed to tell doctors for three years that one of its implantable defibrillator models had a flaw that could cause it to short-circuit. A 21-year-old college student died earlier this year after his Guidant defibrillator failed, according to the paper.

"Having this being an entirely in-house decision by a manufacturer is not the way to go," Dr. Anne B. Curtis, president of the Heart Rhythm Society, told the Times.

She said the group, which represents doctors who treat heart problems, would likely establish a task force to develop industry-wide guidelines on alerting doctors about product flaws.

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