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Health Highlights: Sept. 25, 2003

California Gov. Signs Stem Cell Legislation Minnesota Seeks to Buy Drugs from Canada Fed Proposal Would Relax Feeding Rules at Nursing Homes Shocking Flaw Leads to Laptop Recall Panel Urges FDA Nod for Novel Alzheimer's Drug Do We Really Need to Make More Rats?

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

California Gov. Signs Stem Cell Legislation

California Gov. Gray Davis, even while facing a citizen recall, isn't afraid to buck the White House when it comes to stem cell research.

On Thursday, the Democrat signed a pair of measures that establish ethical and legal guidelines for stem cell use, clarify rules for the use of donated eggs and embryos, and create an anonymous registry of material available for such research, reports the Sacramento Bee.

The measures make California the first state to adopt its own laws governing stem cell use in research, the newspaper says. Davis signed the legislation despite Bush administration efforts to limit the number of stem cell lines that researchers can use.

In recent years, researchers have discovered ways to coax embryonic stem cells into transforming into many other types of cells. Scientists hope these findings can lead to treatments for a host of diseases and conditions -- from Parkinson's and diabetes to Alzheimer's and cancer.

Opponents say the practice comes close to "playing God" and most vehemently oppose using embryonic cells for medical research.

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Minnesota Seeks to Buy Drugs from Canada

Minnesota has become the second state to explore purchasing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, the Associated Press reports.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's directive to the state's Commissioner of Human Services follows a similar move by Illinois earlier this month. But in addition to ordering cheaper drugs for state employees, Minnesota's plan goes further than Illinois' -- it also eyes imported drugs for people on public assistance, the AP reports.

Pawlenty, a Republican, says the plan could save Minnesota $20 million annually. "The point is something must be done," he tells the wire service. "The current model cannot be sustained."

Studies have shown that drugs from Canada can cost up to 80 percent less than domestic equivalents. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says any plan to import drugs is risky, since the agency has no ability to monitor the quality of the imports.

Following the Illinois directive and an earlier announcement from Springfield, Mass., the FDA took steps last week to close a major Canadian drug broker, calling its Web-based transactions illegal.

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Fed Proposal Would Relax Feeding Rules at Nursing Homes

The Bush administration wants to relax nursing home regulations to allow low-paid workers with only a day's training to feed disabled patients, The New York Times reports.

Nursing homes say the so-called "feeding assistants" would improve the quality of care by alleviating serious labor shortages at busy mealtimes.

In a report to Congress last year, the Bush administration said nine of 10 nursing homes were understaffed. And government statistics show 47 percent of nursing home residents need at least some help in eating, according to the Times.

At present, the task of feeding patients who cannot feed themselves can only be done by licensed nurses and others who are required to have 75 hours of training, the newspaper reports. By contrast, under a final rule to be issued in the next few days, feeding assistants would only have to complete an eight-hour training course.

An AARP spokesman says the change could cause "real harm to nursing home residents," the Times reports. And Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) says feeding residents is a job for skilled employees, since "malnutrition and dehydration are chronic nursing home problems."

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Shocking Flaw Leads to Laptop Recall

Sony is recalling about 5,600 laptops, whose users could receive an electric shock when the computers are plugged in, connected to a phone line, and the phone rings.

Only Sony VAIO notebooks with model numbers PCG-FRV25 and PCG-FRV27 are involved in the recall, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says. The computers, generally with modem speeds of 24K or less, were sold nationwide in June and July for about $1,500.

Users should disconnect their laptops from the phone lines immediately and contact Sony at 800-880-9743 to schedule a free repair.

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Panel Urges FDA Nod for Novel Alzheimer's Drug

A Food and Drug Administration committee voted Wednesday to recommend the agency's approval of revolutionary drug to treat Alzheimer's disease.

If the FDA follows the panel's recommendation, which it usually does, memantine could become the nation's first treatment for late-stage Alzheimer's. It works on a different brain chemical than other Alzheimer's drugs, giving doctors the new option of prescribing a combination of medications.

Experts emphasize that the drug isn't a cure -- it merely slows the disease's progression. A six-month study of people with moderate-to-severe Alzheimer's found those given memantine worsened at half the pace of those given a non-medicinal placebo, the Associated Press reports.

The Alzheimer's Association lauded the recommendation. "Today's action could provide additional and alternative strategies to intervene with the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease," William Thies, vice president of medical and scientific affairs for the association, said in a statement.

The medication's effects were measured by how well patients could perform basic tasks like getting dressed and bathing themselves.

Memantine has been sold in Germany for 20 years to treat various forms of dementia with only mild side effects, the AP says. Full FDA approval could come by year's end.

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Do We Really Need to Make More Rats?

French scientists are celebrating the birth of Ralph the Rat, the latest animal to be cloned.

Ralph joins a list that now includes a sheep, cow, mule, pig, goat, rabbit, cat, and mouse. Until now, rats had been difficult to clone because of a physiological quirk when they are born, reports the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Since his birth last November, Ralph has sired apparently healthy pups.

The cloning is a milestone because somewhat rare albino rats are widely used in lab experiments as models for human disease.

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