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Health Highlights: Oct. 17, 2003

FDA Approves New Alzheimer's Drug EPA Allows Sewage Sludge for Farm Use Medicare Deal Close? U.S. Athletes Test Positive for Newly Found Steroid AIDS Regimen Offers Improved Survival Researchers Solve 'Bubble Boy' Mystery

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

FDA Approves New Alzheimer's Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug for people with late-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Friday's decision to approve NAMENDA (memantine) follows the recommendation of the agency's expert panel, which concluded that although the drug doesn't prevent the disease, it appears to slow the brain deterioration that robs victims of memory and other cognitive functions. Still, in recommending the drug late last month, the advisors worried that the medication could give false hope to patients' families.

This is the first drug to be approved for the most serious, late-stage symptoms of Alzheimer's. Known as an N-methyl-D-asparate antagonist, it appears to block the action of the chemical glutamate, which has been shown to damage nerve cells.

The drug was tested in a series of clinical trials in the United States and Latvia involving 800 patients. Those on memantine appeared to be better able to eat, dress, bathe, travel, shop and perform household chores than those on a non-medicinal placebo.

The most frequently reported side effects included dizziness, headache and constipation.

The drug's American marketer, Forest Laboratories, says the medication should be available in January.


EPA Allows Sewage Sludge for Farm Use

The Environmental Protection Agency will allow American farmers to use sewage sludge as fertilizer, despite potential contamination with cancer-causing dioxin, the Associated Press reports.

Though the agency's own studies show that the organic chemical -- typically released when industrial waste is burned -- poses a possible cancer risk, "we're deciding not to regulate dioxin in land-applied sludge that farmers use," EPA spokeswoman Lisa Harrison tells the wire service.

Some 5.6 million tons of sewage sludge are used or disposed of annually in the United States, the AP reports, including 3 million tons used as fertilizer on farms, parks, golf courses, and lawns.

A five-year EPA analysis found that exposure to dioxin from sludge could cause only 0.003 new cases of human cancer annually -- which translates to about one case in 300 years.

An environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, questions the EPA's testing methods. It labels dioxin "among the most toxic substances on earth," adding that land-applied sewage sludge is among the largest sources in the United States, the AP reports.


Medicare Deal Close?

While Congress' self-imposed Friday deadline for reaching a compromise Medicare package appears to have fallen by the wayside, lawmakers are optimistic that an agreement is near, the Gannett News Service reports.

The cornerstone to the Medicare overhaul, with its estimated $400 billion cost over 10 years, is a program to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. House and Senate negotiators have struggled to resolve numerous differences between the separate bills passed by each chamber. Among the sticking points have been the size of the drug benefit, and deciding which beneficiaries will get the most help, GNS reports.

Conservative negotiators appear willing to soften their stance on bringing private insurers into the Medicare program, while more liberal partisans have signaled a willingness to have wealthier beneficiaries pay higher premiums, the wire service says.

A compromise bill would finally give more than 40 million people on Medicare some help in paying the burgeoning costs of prescription drugs. And backers of introducing private insurers into the mix say the move should encourage competition and help contain Medicare's massive price tag, which is predicted to top $276 billion this year, GNS says.


U.S. Athletes Test Positive for Newly Found Steroid

American Olympic athletes have been making widespread use of a newly discovered and previously undetected designer steroid, anti-doping officials tell the Los Angeles Times.

Officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which oversees drug testing for all federations under the U.S. Olympics umbrella, say they received a sample of the steroid from an anonymous tipster. The drug, called tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), has been linked to a Bay Area supplement lab that's been under investigation by a federal grand jury in San Francisco since June, the Times reports.

The drug agency, having just developed tests to detect THG, says its retests of 550 urine samples resulted in an unspecified number of new positives. The unnamed athletes involved could be banned from the 2004 Athens Olympics, the newspaper reports.

USADA chief executive Terry Madden tells the Times that based on the number of athletes and coaches involved, "What we have uncovered appears to be intentional doping of the worst sort."


AIDS Regimen Offers Improved Survival

People who acquire the AIDS virus by using tainted drug needles are now four times as likely to die over the next decade as those who acquire the infection through sex, HealthDay reports. That's the bad news.

The good news is that since the introduction of drugs collectively known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, roughly 90 percent of people with HIV now can expect to live at least 10 years with the virus.

Before the arrival of the regimen in late 1996, about half of people with AIDS-causing HIV died within 10 years of being diagnosed.

Experts theorize that the poorer prognosis among IV drug users likely reflects two factors: piggyback infection with other deadly viruses, such as hepatitis C, and spotty adherence to HAART.

A second theory, supported by evidence from a recent study, is that even while on HAART, drug users typically have much higher levels of HIV in their blood than men and women who acquired the virus through sexual contact.

The findings come from a study of 7,740 men and women in Europe, Australia and Canada infected with HIV. Over time, 2,000, or about a quarter, died. The research appears in the Oct. 18 issue of The Lancet.


Researchers Solve 'Bubble Boy' Mystery

It appears that the mystery surrounding last year's suspension of gene therapy trials involving patients with the so-called "bubble boy" disease has been solved.

The trials involving severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) were ended abruptly when two French boys participating in the gene therapy study developed leukemia.

New research published Friday in the journal Science concludes that when scientists transplanted genetically altered bone marrow into the two youngsters, they also somehow turned on a cancer-causing gene called LMO2, the Associated Press reports.

Though the two boys were the only ones of 11 participants to develop leukemia, the unexplained results caused U.S. medical officials to suspend 27 gene therapy trials. The affected youngsters were subsequently treated and are now in remission, the AP says.

Patients with SCID lack certain immune system factors and are virtually defenseless against germs. In last year's trials, doctors hoped that injections of compatible bone marrow would provide the missing pieces of the immune system, offering patients protection from bacterial and viral infection.

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