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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 18, 2001

More Than Half the HIV-Positive People Are Drug-Resistant Scientists Develop Cold Medicine That Really Works Molecule a Risk for Heart Disease Gout Drug May Ease Pain of Sickle Cell Disease DEA to Step Up Role in Drug Rehab

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

Half the HIV-Positive People Now Have Drug Resistance

More than half the long-time HIV-positive patients have developed resistance to at least one of the drugs that could help keep them alive, researchers have found, according to a HealthDay report today.

The true number may be even higher because the statistics were compiled in 1998 and 1999. Dr. Samuel Bozzett, at the University of California at San Diego, and his colleagues studied the blood of 1,647 people nationwide who tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. All those studied had been HIV-positive during an earlier study in 1996, when the AIDS cocktail was first developed.

Of the patients who had significant levels of the AIDS virus in their blood, 78 percent showed resistance to at least one HIV drug; 51 percent of all HIV-positive patients were resistant. The study found the patients were most resistant to the oldest class of AIDS drugs, known as nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, of which AZT is perhaps the best known.

The findings were released today at a Chicago conference sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

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Scientists Develop Cold Medicine That Really Works

It's not the long elusive cure for the common cold, but scientists have created the first drug proven to reduce the length and severity of that wintertime scourge, the Associated Press reported.

The drug, called pleconaril, clears up a runny nose a day sooner than usual and begins to ease the symptoms within a day. But it only works if the cold is caused by a rhinovirus, the most common culprit.

The findings were presented yesterday by Dr. Frederick Hayden of the University of Virginia at an infectious-disease conference in Chicago sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology. ViroPharma Inc. of Exton, Pa., is developing the drug and has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for approval to market it, the AP said.

The company hasn't said how much it will charge for the prescription medicine. But officials said it is likely to cost as much as antibiotics, which typically are more than $40, the news service reported.

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Molecule a Risk for Heart Disease

Leptin, the obesity molecule that has been the subject of intense research for the last decade, may be a new, independent risk factor for heart disease, Scottish researchers say, HealthDay reported.

A protein secreted by fat cells, leptin was discovered by Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University, who found that mice lacking the gene for leptin were unusually fat and diabetic. Leptin sends a "stop eating" signal to the brain -- a discovery that prompted the biotechnology company Amgen to pay $20 million for the rights to develop leptin as a natural way of inducing weight loss.

Now a group led by Dr. Naveed Sattar of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary says its decade-long study reveals a relationship between blood levels of leptin and the risk of heart disease.

"The risk associated with high levels of leptin is of the same extent associated with high blood pressure or high levels of LDL cholesterol," says Sattar. His group reports the finding in today's issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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Gout Drug May Ease Pain of Sickle Cell Disease

A drug designed to treat gout may relieve some of the painful complications of sickle cell disease, according to HealthDay.

New research suggests that the drug, allopurinol, inhibits an enzyme linked to the circulatory disorder that commonly occurs in people with sickle cell disease.

Although human trials have yet to begin, the findings, published in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer hope to the estimated 72,000 Americans living with the disease.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that causes red blood cells to become crescent- or sickle-shaped. The distortion makes it more difficult for these oxygen-carrying cells to maneuver through blood vessels, causing blockages and tissue damage.

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DEA to Step Up Role in Drug Rehab

The Drug Enforcement Administration, aiming to expand its role in drug treatment and prevention programs, is planning to add more agents to work with local police and community groups to fight drug abuse, the Associated Press reported.

Under the new initiative, to be announced today by DEA chief Asa Hutchinson, the agency will more than double the number of full-time special agents to set up long-term anti-drug programs with police, schools, churches and other agencies. The agents also will encourage communities to establish drug courts that allow nonviolent first-time offenders to receive treatment and counseling rather than jail time.

The new program, which reflects Hutchinson's desire to emphasize rehabilitation, will include working with communities to set up drug testing programs, drug courts, drug treatment programs and police training.

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