Health Highlights: Nov. 29, 2003

Christopher Reeve Blames 'Politics' for Delaying Medical Research Cancer Trials of Anemia Drug Are Suspended Stephen King Recovering From Pneumonia Scientists Uncover Genetic Trick Behind Supergerms First Heart Attack Gene Identified

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

Christopher Reeve Blames 'Politics' for Delaying Medical Research

Christopher Reeve, the actor best known for his role as Superman, says research into finding a cure for disabilities like his own is about five years behind where it should be.

The reason, Reeve said in a CNN interview with Paula Zahn, is because political controversy has interrupted progress in areas like stem cell research.

Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down eight years ago after being thrown from a horse, had hoped to be able to walk by the time he was 50. That hasn't happened. In fact, at age 51, he has only recently been able to breathe without a respirator, and that was only because of the implanting of an experamental pacemaker in his diaphragm.

"I think we're about five years behind where we could have been in this country because of controversy over kinds of research, particularly stem cell research," Reeve told Zahn from his home in Bedford, N.Y.

The Bush administration opposes the use of human embryos in stem cell research. And the federal government has restricted the use of federal money for embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells appear to offer the best possibility of finding cures for spinal cord injuries like the one Reeve has.

Will he ever walk again? Reeve told Zahn that it "is going to depend on politics, on money, on popular support, on our willingness to take reasonable risks in the next three to five years."

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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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