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Health Highlights: Nov. 19, 2004

Utah Has Lowest Lung, Colorectal Cancer Rates Scientists Create Electronic Eye for the Blind FDA Official Defends Drug Safety Record New Drug Approved for Advanced Lung Cancer U.N. Abandons Comprehensive Cloning Ban

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

Utah Has Lowest Lung, Colorectal Cancer Rates

A new U.S. government report finds that Utah has the lowest rates of both lung and colorectal cancers as well as the lowest death rate from these diseases.

The report, from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a comprehensive, state-by-state look at morbidity and death rates from cancer. It also includes information on rates among Hispanics as well as a new section on mesothelioma and Kaposi's sarcoma.

Among the other findings:

  • Washington, D.C., has the highest incidence and death rates of prostate cancer, while Arizona has the lowest incidence and Hawaii has the lowest death rate;
  • The District of Columbia also had the highest colorectal and breast cancer death rates, while the lowest death rates were seen in South Dakota;
  • Kentucky had the highest death rate from lung cancer for men, while West Virginia had the highest for women;
  • And the highest incidence of breast cancer rates were in Washington state, while the lowest were in Texas.

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Scientists Create Electronic Eye for the Blind

Japanese scientists say they have created an electronic eye that would help blind people cross the street safely.

The device, a tiny camera mounted to a pair of eyeglasses, can detect the existence and location of a pedestrian crossing, and at the same time measure the width of the road to the nearest step and detect the color of the traffic lights, according to a new article in the Institute of Physics journal Measurement Science and Technology.

"The camera would be mounted at eye level, and be connected to a tiny computer. It will relay information using a voice speech system and give vocal commands and information through a small speaker placed near the ear," Professor Tadayoshi Shioyama of the Kyoto Institute of Technology said in a statement.

Technology has helped the blind navigate in other ways, especially at crossings that don't make a sound saying it's safe to walk. Adaptations have been made to the most common travel aid used by blind people, the white-tipped cane. Some canes now use lasers or ultrasound to detect more distant obstacles, but they cannot give the location of a crossing or the color of the lights.

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FDA Official Defends Drug Safety Record

A top official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday that he and his colleagues "categorically reject" earlier Congressional testimony that the agency has failed to protect the public against dangerous drugs.

Dr. Steven Galson, acting director of the agency's Center for Drug Evaluation, dismissed allegations from one of the FDA's own drug reviewers that the agency was allowing dangerous drugs to reach the public.

The charges made Thursday by FDA reviewer David Graham have "no basis in fact," Galson said Friday on NBC's "Today" show, according to an Associated Press account.

Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, Graham chided the agency for mishandling the arthritis drug Vioxx, which was recently withdrawn by its maker because of an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Critics have since alleged that the agency knew of problems with Vioxx years earlier but did nothing to alert the public or withdraw the drug.

Graham told senators the agency was "virtually defenseless" against a repeat incident.

Countered Galson during Friday's television appearance: "What we're concerned about is the sort of hysterical charges that come out, that aren't based on reality," he said of Graham's allegations.

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New Drug Approved for Advanced Lung Cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted fast-track approval to Tarceva (erlotinib) to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer that has failed to respond to other therapy.

Similar drugs include AstraZeneca's lung cancer drug Iressa and ImClone Systems' colon cancer drug Erbitux, both of which try to block a protein that encourages cancer cell growth. The FDA said clinical trials involving 731 patients showed Tarceva appeared to extend life by approximately two months, from an average of 4.7 months among those who took a placebo to 6.7 months. Similar drugs in this class have only been proven to shrink tumors, according to The New York Times.

Tarceva and other so-called targeted drugs tend to have fewer side effects than other cancer treatments, although there have been infrequent reports of serious lung disease among some Tarceva users. Other side effects could include diarrhea, rash, and nausea. And the drug could cause fetal harm to pregnant women, the FDA said.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form of lung cancer in the United States, accounting for 80 percent of cases, the agency said. It noted that it granted approval for Tarceva less than a year after makers OSI Pharmaceuticals and Genentech Inc. submitted the first part of their application in January.

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U.N. Abandons Comprehensive Cloning Ban

The United Nations has abandoned efforts to devise a global treaty banning the cloning of human beings.

While there was near universal support to ban reproductive cloning of babies, the international community had engaged in heated debate over whether to allow cloning for stem cell and other research. President Bush told the United Nations in August that he favored a universal cloning ban.

The U.N. diplomats ultimately agreed to settle on a less powerful, non-binding declaration that included language ambiguous enough to please both sides, the Associated Press reported.

Proponents of cloning human embryos for stem cell research say it could lead to treatments for chronic diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Critics condemn the fact that to harvest stem cells, the embryos must be destroyed in the process.

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