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Health Highlights: Oct. 18, 2003

FDA Approves New Alzheimer's Drug 1 Pair of Conjoined Twins Readied for Surgery, As Another Recovers EPA Allows Sewage Sludge for Farm Use Medicare Deal Close? U.S. Athletes Test Positive for Newly Found Steroid

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.

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1 Pair of Conjoined Twins Ready for Surgery; Another Recovers

Eighteen-month-old twin boys from the Philippines who are joined at the top of their heads will begin a series of separation surgeries Monday in New York City that could take several months to complete, their doctors said.

The surgeons' goal is that Carl and Clarence Aguirre can "live viable, independent lives," Dr. James Goodrich, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Montefiore Children's Hospital in the Bronx, told the Associated Press.

The first of the operations is scheduled for Monday.

The boys have gained five pounds in the last five weeks, eating a special diet of pureed food. Their brains appear to be almost entirely separate within their skulls, though they share major veins that must be separated, The New York Times reports.

"We believe that we can do this, but at the same time we are cognizant of the risks," the AP quoted Goodrich as saying. "We're aware that we could lose one or both."

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Egyptian twin boys who were separated in a 34-hour operation at Children's Medical Center Dallas (Texas) last weekend continue to show slow but steady improvement.

Mohamed and Ahmed Ibrahim remained in critical but stable condition Friday. Mohamed is no longer receiving coma-inducing drugs to reduce the risk of brain swelling. Doctors were cutting back on the drugs for Ahmed, but they temporarily increased the dosage again after some twitching on his right side indicated the possibility of seizures, according to the Times.

In both cases, charitable organizations have raised money to help pay for some of the twins' medical bills, the newspaper reports.

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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.

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Medicare Deal Close?

While Congress' self-imposed Friday deadline for reaching a compromise Medicare package has 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.

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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."

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