Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 22, 2001

2 Postal Workers' Deaths Apparently Anthrax A Remicade Warning for Heart Patients Breast Cancer Surgery Can Save Lymph Nodes

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

Anthrax 'Highly Probable' in 2 Postal Workers' Deaths

Two workers at a Washington, D.C., postal facility that handles mail for the U.S. Capitol have died in the last two days, and Surgeon General David Satcher said today it was "highly probable'' they had succumbed to inhaled anthrax, the Associated Press reported.

Two other Postal Service employees who worked at the same facility are hospitalized with the once-rare and often fatal form of the disease.

Dr. Ivan Walks, the chief health officer for the District of Columbia, said authorities are investigating nine more cases of people who have exhibited symptoms consistent with the disease, according to the AP report.

One of the postal workers, who died this morning, had been examined on Sunday by doctors who were unaware of where he worked and diagnosed him with the flu, officials said today. The unidentified man had collapsed in church Saturday and gone to the Southern Maryland Medical Center early Sunday morning. The cause of death was listed as preliminary pulmonary anthrax and septic shock, according to Dr. Venkat Mani, head of the hospital's infectious diseases department.

The second man, who was also not identified, died Sunday at Greater Southeast Hospital in Washington, AP said.

One of the two postal workers who are now hospitalized was diagnosed with inhaled anthrax today and is in the same suburban Virginia hospital as the original postal worker, who was diagnosed over the weekend.

The disclosures came as D.C. authorities urged anyone connected with the Brentwood central mail facility, which is in Northeast Washington, to come forward immediately for screening.

Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president, said there are approximately 2,000 employees at the facility.

Brentwood is the central mail handling facility that processed the anthrax-contaminated letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle last week, which exposed 28 people to the disease and eventually forcing the shutdown of the Capitol.

More than 2,200 postal employees in the capital area are now being tested for exposure to the disease. The Brentwood facility and a second postal facility will remain closed indefinitely for environmental testing on a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Inhaled anthrax is the same form of the disease that killed a Florida supermarket tabloid photo editor three weeks ago. A second employee of the tabloid remains hospitalized in a Miami hospital with the same form of the disease, but family members say he is doing well.

The toll of confirmed anthrax victims now stands at: one death from inhaled anthrax, three cases of inhaled anthrax; six cases of cutaneous (skin) anthrax; and 28 cases of anthrax exposures (in the Capitol complex).

Also today, Congressional leaders reopened the U.S. Capitol building after "environmental sweeps" by federal health officials came back negative for anthrax traces, CNN reports. But House and Senate office buildings remained closed until results from environmental testing are complete.

And New York Gov. George Pataki's midtown Manhattan office also reopened this morning -- five days after it was evacuated for potential anthrax tainting -- after all test results came back negative, the AP reports.

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Remicade Warning for Heart Patients

The manufacturer of the rheumatoid arthritis drug Remicade has warned physicians not to give the drug to patients with congestive heart failure.

Clinical trials proved that the heart patients on Remicade got much sicker than those patients who weren't using the drug, said Centocor. Seven of 101 heart patients treated with Remicade died, compared to zero out of 49 patients taking a placebo in the roughly 6-week trial, the company's statement said, according to an Associated Press report.

Doctors are also being told to re-evaluate Remicade therapy for patients with congestive heart failure, a heart weakened by age, damage from a heart attack or some other condition, the AP reports. Remicade treatment should stop if a patient's heart condition gets worse, said the Malverne, Pa.-based company, which consulted with the Food and Drug Administration.

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Breast Cancer Surgery Can Save Lymph Nodes

New surgical techniques could save the lymph nodes and avoid radiotherapy after breast cancer surgery, a leading expert said today.

Traditional breast surgery involves removing all the lymph glands in the armpit to determine if the tumor has spread, according to an Associated Press report. But Dr. Umberto Veronesi, a pioneer of breast-conserving surgery in the 1970s, presented new evidence at a meeting of the Federation of European Cancer Societies in Lisbon, Portugal, that indicated that first removing only one key node for testing was as accurate a predictor as cutting them all out.

The technique, known as sentinel node biopsy, is rapidly gaining recognition and is used quite widely in top cancer centers, but has not been embraced by all cancer doctors.

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Cancer Treatment Helps Coronary Artery Blockage

Swiss researchers report they have used a protein originally developed for cancer treatment to improve blood flow in patients whose blocked coronary arteries could not be treated by conventional methods, according to HealthDay

The report is the latest in a growing field with this guiding idea: If you can't reopen a blocked vessel or bypass it, then grow new vessels to restore blood flow, either by gene therapy or by using vessel-promoting molecules.

The molecule used by the researchers is granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), one of several proteins that act to promote production of blood cells and platelets. GM-CSF supports the growth of white blood cells called macrophages, which is why it is given to cancer patients with leukemia and those who have bone marrow transplants.

The use of GM-CSF in patients with severe coronary artery disease was based on studies showing that macrophages induce the growth of new blood vessels, a group led by Dr. Christian Seiler, a cardiology professor in Bern, reports in the Oct. 23 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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A Hair-Raising Discovery

In a discovery that may help scientists one day treat ordinary baldness, researchers say they've identified a normal role for a gene that causes two rare hair-loss disorders when it's disabled, the Associated Press reports.

So far, there's no evidence of a direct link between the "hairless" gene and typical baldness. The new work doesn't even explain why the gene causes the rare hair-loss disorders when it malfunctions.

But many types of hair loss probably share a similar biological mechanism, and understanding the hairless gene's function will help scientists figure out that mechanism, says researcher Catherine C. Thompson, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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