Health Highlights: June 27, 2011

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

Six States Ban Abortion After 20th Week of Pregnancy

Alabama this month became the sixth state in little more than a year to pass a law that bans abortions at the 20th week after conception, based on the premise that the fetus can feel pain at that point.

Not only is that theory disputed by major medical groups in the United States, the new abortion laws also challenge a major Supreme Court benchmark -- that abortion cannot be banned until the fetus becomes viable, The New York Times reported.

Viability is defined as the ability to survive outside the womb and usually occurs at the 24th week of pregnancy, according to Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst with the research group the Guttmacher Institute.

Nebraska passed the first 20-week limit last year and has been followed by Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Alabama. A similar law is moving through the Iowa legislature, The Times reported.

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Drug Maker Wants Another Chance to Prove Avastin is Effective

At a hearing this week, Genentech will ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be given one more opportunity to prove that the drug Avastin is an effective breast cancer treatment.

Last December, the FDA proposed to revoke its approval of Avastin for breast cancer on the grounds that new studies did not confirm the drug helped patients with the disease, The New York Times reported.

Genentech says even if data that does not support Avastin's effectiveness is reaffirmed, the FDA should retain the drug's approval while the drug maker conducts one more clinical trial.

The FDA approved Avastin under an accelerated program that permits drugs for serious conditions to be approved with less than the usual amount of evidence, subject to further clinical trials. Dozens of drugs have made it to market this way, but at least a couple have later been withdrawn, The Times reported.

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Genome Editing Cures Hemophilia in Mice

Scientists were able to cure hemophilia in mice by using a new technique for editing the genome of living cells.

In this method, a couple of injections are used to achieve the "cut" and "paste" procedures required to insert a corrective gene. It's the first time a genome-editing technique has succeeded in a live animal, The New York Times reported.

This approach, described in the journal Nature, could be used to treat a number of conditions and might give a much-needed boost to the field of gene therapy.

"This may well revolutionize the field, but it won't do so overnight," said research team leader Dr. Katherine A. High of the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. "Any novel kind of therapeutic takes time to develop."

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Slim Gene Linked to Dangerous Fat

Genes that help keep people slim are associated with dangerous fat that increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to U.K. researchers.

They examined the genes of more than 76,000 people and found that variants of the IRS1 gene reduce fat under the skin, but not the more dangerous visceral fat that can form around the heart, liver and other organs, BBC News reported.

"We've uncovered a truly fascinating genetic story and when we found the effect of this gene we were very intrigued," lead researcher Dr. Ruth Loos said. "It is not only overweight individuals who can be predisposed for these metabolic diseases, and lean individuals shouldn't make assumptions that they are healthy based on their appearance."

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, could help explain "why 20 percent of people with type 2 diabetes have the condition despite being a healthy weight," Dr. Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK, told BBC News.

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Drug-Resistant Scarlet Fever Outbreak in Hong Kong

There have been more than 500 cases of drug-resistant scarlet fever so far this year in Hong Kong due to a mutated strain that seems to be more contagious.

The strain is 60 percent resistant to two drugs of choice, but can still be cured by penicillin. However, health officials are worried that the strain could become resistant to penicillin before a vaccine is developed, the Associated Press reported.

"That's the cause of lots of nightmares," Dr. Edward Kaplan, who heads the World Health Organization research center at the University of Minnesota that specializes in the scarlet fever-causing strep germ.

"The fact that we still have penicillin is something we all get down on our knees and say prayers about each night," Kaplan told the AP.

Posted: June 2011


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