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Health Highlights: June 19, 2005

Schizophrenia Drug May Thwart, Treat SARS Cooling Cap for Newborns Closer to Market Medical Marijuana Available in Oregon Again Number of Babies Born HIV-positive Plummets in Florida Guidant Recalls 50,000 Heart Defibrillators FDA Limits Access to Lung Cancer Drug

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

Schizophrenia Drug May Thwart, Treat SARS

Chinese and European scientists reported Sunday that a drug used to treat schizophrenia may pull double duty as a treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The Associated Press reported that Cinanserin inhibits the activity of the corona virus, the bug behind the deadly disease that first surfaced in China in late 2002. The finding was announced at a meeting of the Sino-European Project on SARS Diagnostics and Antivirals in Hangzhou, China.

Cinanserin was one of 15 drugs that showed promise against the respiratory illness, but the others haven't been tested sufficiently, experts said at the conference. SARS killed 349 people in mainland China and sickened thousands worldwide before dissipating in July 2003.

"Cinanserin could be directly prescribed to prevent the SARS disease or treat SARS patients if the fatal epidemic makes a comeback," Peter Kristensen, an expert from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, told the AP.

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Cooling Cap for Newborns Closer to Market

A cap that chills the brains of oxygen-deprived newborns was given a preliminary blessing by a group of scientific advisors for the FDA, when the group ruled on Friday that the device might help prevent brain damage in these infants.

The Associated Press reported that the ruling moves the "Cool-Cap" closer to market, although the advisors noted the device would have to be sold under strict conditions to guarantee the technology doesn't cause harm.

The FDA does not have to follow the recommendations of its advisors, but it usually does, according to the AP. Mild hypothermia, where the body is cooled by only a few degrees, has improved the chances of complete recovery in adult heart attack patients. The procedure reduces the brain's need for oxygen, and stalls a cascade of events that can lead to further damage once blood flow returns to the brain.

The cap, which is strapped to a newborn's head, has water channels running through it. Cold water rushes through the cap for 72 hours, causing the baby's temperature to drop to 94 degrees. Afterwards, the newborn's body temperature is restored to normal levels. In research on 218 newborns, 45 percent of those treated with the cap survived without brain damage, compared to 34 percent of the babies who were given standard treatment.

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Medical Marijuana Available in Oregon Again

Oregon began issuing medical marijuana cards again, after the state's attorney general decided to ignore a Supreme Court ruling that would allow federal prosecution of those possessing the drug.

At the same time, the Associated Press reported, the state warned that those who participate in the program will not be protected from prosecution if the federal government decides to take action. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that federal drug laws supersede medical marijuana laws in the 11 states that have them. Oregon stopped sending out cards, but continued to process applications while Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers examined the legal ramifications of the ruling, the AP reported.

Myers concluded that the Supreme Court decision did not invalidate Oregon's medial marijuana program, so the state's Human Services Department on Friday began mailing out about 550 registration cards. The AP reported that more than 10,000 patients have registered for the state's medical marijuana program. A doctor has to state that a patient needs the drug for pain relief from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or severe pain, among other things.

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Number of Babies Born HIV-positive Plummets in Florida

In a sign that the battle against AIDS is being won one at least one front, Florida reported Friday that the number of babies being born HIV-positive has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.

As a matter of fact, there have been no babies born HIV-positive so far this year in the state, the Associated Press reported. Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi said the startling statistics show that more pregnant women are getting tested and that antiretroviral drugs used both during pregnancy and childbirth are making a difference.

"It's a huge AIDS success story," the Florida Department of Health's HIV/AIDS Bureau Chief Tom Liberti told the AP.

The trend may be similar nationwide, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't have figures that are as fresh as the Florida statistics. However, mother-to-baby transmission of the virus nationwide in 2000 was down about 80 percent from its peak in the early 1990s.

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Guidant Recalls 50,000 Heart Defibrillators

The FDA and Guidant Corp. are recalling 50,000 implantable cardiac defibrillators that may malfunction, the company announced Friday. Most of the devices have already been implanted, the Associated Press said.

Defibrillators shock an irregularly beating heart back into a normal rhythm. Guidant models recalled include the Prizm 2 DR, Contak Renewal, Contak Renewal 2, Ventak Prizm ADT, Vitality AVT, Renewal 3 AVT, and Renewal 4 AVT. The company said it has at least 45 reports of failure, resulting in at least two recent deaths, the AP reported.

The company has come under fire for failing to alert doctors to the potential problems, and for allegedly selling older models for months after redesigning the way they were made. Guidant told The New York Times that it continued to sell the older models because it believed the devices were reliable, HealthDay reported June 2.

Guidant advises anyone who received an affected model to see their doctors at least every three months, and to consult their doctor immediately if they've received a defibrillator shock, the AP said.

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FDA Limits Access to Lung Cancer Drug

The FDA has approved new labeling for the last-chance lung cancer drug Iressa (gefitinib), saying that after Sept. 15 the medicine should be limited only to patients who are already benefiting from its use, the agency announced Friday.

The AstraZeneca drug, approved in May 2003 for people with non-small cell lung cancer, failed to significantly extend survival among participants in 1,692-patient clinical trials. Only about 10 percent of users responded to it, the FDA said, noting that later research indicated the drug seemed to work better in people with a specific gene mutation.

Since Iressa's approval, a newer medicine -- Genentech's Tarceva (erlotinib) -- in the same class of drugs was shown to improve overall survival, the FDA said.

Some 4,000 Americans are taking Iressa, the Associated Press reported. It was approved under an FDA program that lets promising therapies sell before researchers ultimately determine whether they improve patient survival, the AP said.

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