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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 15, 2001

Sens. Unveil Bioterrorism Bill for Vaccines, Inspections Two More West Nile Deaths Confirmed Cancer Bomb Kills Tumor Cells, Researchers Say Artificial Heart Recipient Suffers Stroke Gene Therapy Rejuvenates Damaged Hearts Transplant Network Changes Rule on Hearts for Infants

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

Bioterrorism Bill Introduced in Senate

Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., unveiled a $3.2 billion bioterrorism spending package today, the Associated Press reported.

The money would go for stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, increasing food inspections, adding money to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and helping state and local governments plan for bioterrorism.

Kennedy, who chairs the Senate health committee, said the anthrax attack that has killed four people and disrupted large parts of the federal government showed that more needs to be done to combat bioterrorism.

"A larger attack could be a disaster for whole communities in America. We've had the clearest possible warning and we cannot afford to ignore it,'' he said at a news conference, according to AP.

Meanwhile, a leading government scientist said yesterday there's no evidence that alternative medicines, including some promoted on the Internet, are effective in treating anthrax or other biological agents.

Certain natural treatments could interfere with proven antibiotics, and there is little reason to believe they hold promise in responding to bioterrorist attacks, said Dr. Stephen E. Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the AP said.

The public should have "an unwavering trust in the currently approved drugs and vaccines," he told the House Government Reform Committee. Straus also cautioned against "pursuing unproven remedies."

Also, the family of a postal worker who died of inhalation anthrax has sued his health-maintenance organization, claiming the doctors there misdiagnosed his condition as the flu and prescribed Tylenol instead of antibiotics, The Washington Post reported yesterday.

The postal worker, Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55, worked at the Brentwood facility, in Washington, D.C., which processed on Oct. 11 the anthrax-contaminated letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The suit alleges Morris visited his HMO, Kaiser Permanente, on Oct. 18, was misdiagnosed, and three days later was dead, according to The Post.

Kaiser officials defended their treatment of Morris, the newspaper said.

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Two More West Nile Deaths Confirmed

An elderly Massachusetts man died after contracting West Nile virus, the first confirmed human case of the mosquito-borne virus in that state, health officials said yesterday.

The virus has also claimed New Jersey's second victim, officials said.

The unidentified 70-year-old suburban Boston man died in mid-October after developing the characteristic flu-like symptoms the previous month, officials said, according to the Associated Press.

New Jersey health officials say the 45-year-old man who died there was probably bitten by an infected mosquito in late summer. He died Oct. 4 after being hospitalized since August.

A total of 42 human cases have been reported in seven eastern and southern states this year. The two new confirmed deaths bring to four the number of fatalities this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

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Cancer Bomb Kills Tumor Cells, Researchers Say

Researchers say they have developed a way to kill cancer cells by bombarding them with radiation from within, HealthDay reported today.

The "atomic nanogenerator," as it is called, has worked well in animal models, and an application for use against human cancers will be filed soon with the Food and Drug Administration, says the leader of the research group, Dr. David A. Scheinberg, head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center laboratory of hematopoietic cancer immunochemistry.

The nanogenerator, as described in the Nov. 16 issue of Science, uses radioactive atoms of the element actinium, which give off alpha radiation, very small, high-energy particles that decay to produce "daughter" atoms that emit their own alpha particles. The molecular cage for the actinium atom was developed with help by chemists at the Dow Chemical Company.

Using a variety of antibodies, the researchers were able to kill human leukemia, lymphoma, breast, prostate and ovarian cancer cells in laboratory dishes. They then tested the treatment in two mouse models, involving prostate cancer and lymphoma, and were able to extend the life of those with the tumors.

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Artificial Heart Recipient Back on Ventilator

The world's first recipient of an artificial heart is back on a ventilator and unable to move part of his body after he suffered a stroke, setting back months of progress and apparently dashing his wish to spend Christmas at home, the Associated Press reported today.

Robert Tools, 59, had the stroke Sunday at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, said Dr. Laman Gray, one of the surgeons who implanted the self-contained AbiCor artificial heart on July 2.

Dr. Robert Dowling, Tools' other surgeon, yesterday characterized the patient's condition as serious.

Gray said he believed the stroke was caused by a blood clot, but doctors haven't pinpointed its origin. He said Tools' outlook is like any other stroke victim, except he has one advantage in having the mechanical heart, the AP said.

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Gene Therapy Rejuvenates Damaged Hearts

New research shows that a gene from a naturally occurring hormone called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), when injected directly into damaged heart muscle, improved the conditions of patients who were in the final stages of heart disease, HealthDay reported today.

At the end of two separate studies, a majority of the patients reported less angina or chest pain and increased physical function, the researchers say. Both reports, one that followed heart patients for one year and another that tracked them for two years, were presented recently at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

Although the results are promising, cardiologists emphasize that a larger, randomized trial that includes a control group not receiving the growth factor needs to be the next step.

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Transplant Network Changes Rule on Hearts for Infants

The nation's transplant network voted today to ease its rules on giving new hearts to infants. The new policy by the Richmond, Va.-based United Network of Organ Sharing will let babies under 1 year old get hearts that don't match their blood types, according to the Associated Press.

The change, which will be implemented as soon as possible, came after a Colorado baby named Arionna Harris died at 6 weeks old while awaiting a heart. Under the new policy, donor hearts will be offered first to recipients with compatible blood types and then to those younger than 12 months with other blood types, network spokeswoman Anne Paschke said.

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