Health Highlights: Nov. 28, 2003

Cancer Trials of Anemia Drug Are Suspended Stephen King Recovering From Pneumonia Scientists Uncover Genetic Trick Behind Supergerms First Heart Attack Gene Identified New Heart Pump May Reduce Pain After Surgery

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

Cancer Trials of Anemia Drug Are Suspended

Four clinical trials of an anemia drug that was being tested to help cancer patients have been suspended after some patients developed unexpected levels of blood clotting.

Johnson & Johnson announced Thursday that the tests of Procrit, used primarily to treat anemia caused by chemotherapy or kidney failure, were suspended over the last several weeks, the Associated Press reports.

Procrit is a version of erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that aids in the production of red blood cells. The suspended trials sought to raise levels of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in the blood, beyond levels needed to treat anemia.

"These trials were being conducted on a hypothesis, that by using EPO with cancer patients it would increase the oxygen levels in the blood, which would make radiation and chemotherapy treatments more effective," said Mark Wolfe, the company's director of public affairs.

Wolfe said other independent trials involving EPO also have been suspended after Johnson & Johnson notified the investigators performing the trials of the concerns about blood clotting.

Some doctors said EPO does not pose a risk if it is used in prescribed amounts. Two other version of EPO, Epogen and Aranesp, are sold by Amgen. An Amgen spokesman said that labels of EPO drugs contain warnings about the risk of blood clots.

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Stephen King Recovering From Pneumonia

Novelist Stephen King was expected to remain in the hospital during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend as he recovers from pneumonia, a spokesman said.

He is conscious and in good spirits, and is expected to recover fully, but will probably remain in Eastern Maine Medical Centre for several days, spokesman Warren Silver told the Associated Press.

Silver told the Bangor Daily News there appears to be a connection between the pneumonia and a 1999 accident in which King, 56, was struck by a van and nearly killed while walking near his summer home. He suffered a punctured lung and a broken leg, hip and ribs in the accident. The puncture resulted in a "fair amount" of scar tissue in King's lungs, creating what doctors see as a vulnerability to ailments such as pneumonia, Silver said.

King fell ill just days after accepting the prestigious National Book Award for the body of his work. The disease was diagnosed in his right lung just before his trip to New York to accept the award on Nov. 19, but his condition got worse upon his return to Maine, spreading to the other lung.

The author of the best-sellers Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Shining additionally suffered from pleural effusion, a condition that forced doctors to drain fluid from his right lung on Tuesday, Silver says.

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Scientists Uncover Genetic Trick Behind Supergerms

Scientists say they've determined the genetic trick by which a dangerous germ acquired resistance to a highly potent antibiotic, earning itself "supergerm" status in the process.

The bug is Staphylococcus aureus, a leading cause of skin and bloodstream infections; the drug is vancomycin. Until recently, vancomycin was the staph-fighting equivalent of the Powell Doctrine -- overwhelming force against a vulnerable enemy, HealthDay reports.

But given the history of other antibiotics, it was only a matter of time before the bug would evolve resistance to vancomycin. The first shot was heard in 1997, in Japan, with a bug that had modest immunity to the drug. That was followed by two more in the United States earlier this decade -- but in both cases the staph had full resistance to vancomycin.

The latest study, reported in the Nov. 28 issue of Science, analyzed a sample from one of the U.S. cases, a supergerm discovered last year in a 40-year-old Michigan kidney patient.

Examining the genetic makeup of the supergerm, researchers learned that it had acquired a key resistance gene, called vanA, from an unrelated microbe. The microbe, Enterococcus faecalis, has been hardened to vancomycin since at least 1988.

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First Heart Attack Gene Identified

More than 100 members of an Iowa family have provided scientists with the long-sought clue into whether there is a genetic predisposition to having a heart attack. And the answer is yes, there appears to be such a thing as a heart attack gene.

The Associated Press reports that the gene, known as MEF2A, has been traced through members of a large Iowa family that has been plagued for generations with heart problems, including coronary artery disease.

Dr. Eric J. Topol of the Cleveland Clinic, head of a team that discovered the gene, told the wire service that MEF2A plays a role in protecting the artery walls from building up plaque that can lead to heart attacks.

"Everyone who has this gene mutation is destined to have the disease," Topol said. "If you don't have this gene in this family, you appear to free from developing this disease."

Topol said the research team found some of the Iowa family members had MEF2A genes that lacked key bits of DNA, and this made their arteries to thicken, impeding blood flow.

More studies will be conducted, Topol said, into non-related people with the same MEF2A problems, to see if the gene works the same way.

The discovery is reported in the Nov. 28 issue of the journal Science.

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New Heart Pump May Reduce Pain After Surgery

A team of researchers from Louisville, Ky. says it's come up with a new device that will not only reduce pain after heart surgery but also cut down on how long the patient stays in the hospital.

According to the Associated Press, scientists at Jewish Hospital have used a new pump, developed by I-Flow Corp. of Lake Forest, Cal., to infuse a local anesthetic into the incision. The pump's effectiveness in spreading the anesthetic into the affected area has caused much less pain, and as a result, patients can go home earlier, the wire service reports.

"We are as excited about this study as any we've done, because of the number of people it will help," the study's leader, Dr. Rob Dowling, a professor of surgery at the University of Louisville, told the A.P. .

The researchers estimate the new procedure could save $1.4 billion a year in the United States by shortening hospital stays for many of the more than 750,000 heart operations performed in the United States each year.

The study is published in the December issue of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

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