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Health Highlights: June 28, 2004

Leeches Latest Addition to America's Medical Arsenal Supreme Court to Rule on Medical Marijuana Major U.S. HRT Trial Flawed: Study High-Protein Diets and Motherhood May Not Mix Antidepressant Doesn't Help Children, Maker Concedes New York Mandates Fire-Safe Cigarettes

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

Leeches Latest Addition to America's Medical Arsenal

Leeches, a medical tool for thousands of years, are poised for a comeback. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for the commercial marketing of the blood-sucking, fresh-water animals for medicinal purposes.

Leeches can help heal skin grafts by removing blood pooled under the graft and restore blood circulation in blocked veins by removing pooled blood.

Leeches have been used as an alternative treatment to blood-letting and amputation for several thousand years. They reached their height of medicinal use in the mid-1800s. Today, they are used throughout the world as tools in skin grafts and reattachment surgery, the FDA said, in announcing its decision.

Ricarimpex SAS, a French firm, becomes the first company to request and receive FDA clearance to market leeches as medical devices. The firm has been breeding leeches for 150 years.

In weighing the company's application, the FDA said it reviewed the published literature on the use of leeches in medicine and evaluated safety data provided by the firm. The agency also reviewed information on how the company's leeches are fed, their environment, and the personnel who handle them.


Supreme Court to Rule on Medical Marijuana

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether patients can legally use medical marijuana.

A California appeals court ruled last December that that state's 1996 medical marijuana law allows people to grow, obtain, or smoke marijuana if they have a doctor's recommendation. Patients with diseases including cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma have found the drug useful as a painkiller and appetite promoter.

The Bush administration appealed the decision, saying the federal Controlled Substances Act bans the use of illegal drugs, and trumps state laws that allow the use of medical marijuana. Besides California, eight states -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington -- have laws that permit patients to use the drug with a doctor's approval, the Associated Press reported.

The nation's highest court will hear the California case sometime next winter, the news service said.


Major U.S. HRT Trial Flawed: Study

The major U.S. government trial whose findings prompted many women to drop hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is fundamentally flawed, according to a critical new study.

Because most of the participants in the trial were older women, HRT may still prevent heart disease and ease menopausal symptoms in younger women, says the new research from Yale University published in the June issue of Fertility and Sterility.

The estrogen and progestin trials in the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a 15-year research program on postmenopausal women, were halted in the last three years after various findings showed that the hormones increased health risks, HealthDay reported.

A lot of criticism of the WHI trials, both past and present, has revolved around the age of the participants. The age range of the women was from 50 to 79, with the average age being 63.

As a result of those ages, most of these women may have had the beginnings of heart disease when the trial started, which made the trial fundamentally unable to test the hormones for primary prevention, according to Dr. Frederick Naftolin, lead author of the new study and director of the Center for Research in Reproductive Biology at Yale University School of Medicine.


High-Protein Diets and Motherhood May Not Mix

Can a high-protein diet -- the cornerstone of several of the nation's hottest weight-loss plans -- make it tougher for women to become pregnant? New research suggests this might be the case -- at least in mice.

American researchers found that a diet containing 25 percent protein led to only 26 percent of mice embryos developing into mothers, compared to 70 percent of embryos on a diet consisting of 14 percent protein.

The findings were presented Monday at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, in Berlin.

Another study presented at the conference suggested that the radiation from cell phones may reduce a man's sperm count by one-third, and diminish sperm's ability to swim. Both results would significantly lower a man's chances of fathering a child, according to The Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper.

The research, by scientists from the University of Szeged in Hungary, followed 221 men for 13 months. Men who made lengthy calls had fewer rapidly motile sperm -- 36 percent -- compared to men who didn't use the phones -- 51 percent.

News from the conference wasn't all bad, however.

British researchers reported that lab tests using a chemical from the khat plant, which is popular in sections of East Africa, enabled sperm to become fertile faster and stay fertile longer, compared to untreated sperm.

The researchers say the finding may one day lead to products to help couples conceive, BBC News Online reported.


Antidepressant Doesn't Help Children, Maker Concedes

The antidepressant Lexapro does not appear to help depressed children and adolescents, its maker concedes from a recent clinical study.

Forest Laboratories' acknowledgement, reported by The New York Times, is significant since the medication contains the same active ingredient as another company antidepressant, Celexa, which is widely prescribed for children.

The Times also reported that Forest has neglected to make light of a failed, unpublished 2002 study of Celexa use in children and adolescents. Forest denies any wrongdoing, the newspaper reported.

Makers of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) -- of which Lexapro and Celexa are two -- have come under increased scrutiny of late, following studies that found a link between the medications and suicidal tendencies among young users. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun investigating the merits of such a link.

While the Eli Lilly drug Prozac is the only SSRI that's FDA-approved for use in children, doctors are free to prescribe other antidepressants to young people. Celexa has become the fourth-leading drug prescribed for pediatric depression, the Times reported.


New York Mandates Fire-Safe Cigarettes

Beginning Monday, if you take too long to puff on your cigarette in New York, you may have to relight it.

New York is the first state to require fire-safe cigarettes designed to extinguish themselves if not puffed regularly. The law is meant to cut down on the number of smoking-related fires, according to the Associated Press.

The cigarettes are wrapped in ultra-thin banded paper than inhibits burning. Makers of the new models warn, however, that while the cigarettes may go out on their own, they still are capable of starting fires.

Some 900 Americans die and another 2,500 are hurt by fires started by unattended cigarettes, the AP said.

Packs of cigarettes that comply with the new law will bear a tiny mark next to the bar code -- an asterisk, dash, or diamond, the wire service said.

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