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Health Highlights: March 12, 2008

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

FDA Panel Backs New Platelet Drug

An experimental biotech drug to treat a blood-clotting disorder won a recommendation for approval Wednesday from U.S. health experts.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted unanimously in favor of Amgen's drug, Nplate, according to a company spokeswoman.

The company is seeking approval for Nplate for patients with immune thrombocytopenic purpura, a disorder that causes the body to attack its own platelets, tiny components of blood that help with clotting, the Associated Press reported. The condition, which causes bruising and bleeding after minor injuries, affects about 200,000 people in the United States.

Amgen submitted studies that showed patients treated with the drug had significantly higher platelet levels than those taking placebo. The drug is a genetically engineered version of the protein that encourages platelet production, the AP reported.


Meth Use Declines in U.S.

A U.S. government crackdown on the availability of chemicals used to make methamphetamine may be one reason why meth use continued to drop in nearly every part of the country last year.

A study released Wednesday by New Jersey-based drug testing company Quest Diagnostics Inc. found that the number of U.S. employees who tested positive for meth decreased 22 percent overall in 2007, the Associated Press reported. However, meth use in the Northest remained steady.

And a new report from the Drug Enforcement Agency said the number of illegal meth lab seizures decreased from 7,347 in 2006 to 5,080 in 2007, a drop of 31 percent. White House drug policy director John Walters said the market for meth has been disrupted by laws restricting the sale of cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine (a key ingredient in meth), and increased efforts to block the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico.

The Quest study, based on the results of more than 8.4 million worker drug tests, also found that cocaine use in the workforce decreased by 19 percent last year, the largest single-year drop in a decade, the AP reported.

However, positive tests for amphetamines increased by 5 percent, the Quest study said.


Scientists Discover Key to Pneumonia Bacterium's Penicillin Resistance

U.K. scientists have discovered how a bacterium that causes pneumonia becomes resistant to penicillin, a finding that could lead to the development of new drugs to fight different types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The University of Warwick researchers studied Streptococcus pneumoniae, which kills five million children a year worldwide, BBC News reported. S. pneumoniae is among a growing number of bacteria that have developed resistance to penicillin and other drugs.

The researchers found that S. pneumoniae deploys a protein called MurM in order to protect itself from the effects of penicillin. The study appears in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

These findings may help in the development of new drugs that disrupt the chemistry of MurM in order to prevent the bacterium from developing resistance to penicillin, BBC News reported. The research could also help in efforts to combat drug resistance in other types of bacteria.


Schizophrenics Process Memories Differently: Study

Compared to normal people, schizophrenia patients appear to use different areas of the brain to process short-term memories, says a study by researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The findings may helps explain why schizophrenia is often associated with memory problems.

While normal people in the study used the right side of the brain to remember specific locations, those with schizophrenia used a wider network of areas on both sides of the brain, BBC News reported.

"This suggests that while healthy people recruit a specialized and focused network of brain areas for specific memory function, schizophrenic patients seem to rely on a more diffuse and wider network to achieve the same goal, " said researcher Professor Sohee Park.

"Cognitive impairment, including problems with memory, is one of the most disabling symptoms of schizophrenia, but is even more poorly understood than the other main symptoms -- hallucinations and delusions," Paul Corry, of the schizophrenia charity Rethink, told BBC News. "These findings offer some pointers to further research."


Kmart Launches $1 OTC Drug Program

A program that offers consumers their choice of one of 10 over-the-counter (OTC) medications for $1 with every prescription purchase has been launched by Kmart Pharmacy.

The 10 kinds of Kmart's American Fare brand OTC medications that are part of the program include aspirin, ibuprofen, children's pain reliever, baby aspirin, nasal decongestant, cough suppressant, anti-diarrhea medication, and cold and allergy tablets.

The program was launched in Florida last week and will be available at every Kmart pharmacy in April. All of the specially labeled $1 American Fare OTC products will be kept behind the pharmacy counter, while regular-priced American Fare products will be on store shelves, the retailer said.


Researchers 'Hack' Into Heart Device

A team of computer security researchers in the United States was able to reprogram a combination heart defibrillator and pacemaker to make it shut down and deliver potentially fatal jolts of electricity if the device had been implanted in a person, The New York Times reported.

In this laboratory test, the experts from the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts were also able to gather personal patient data by eavesdropping on signals from the Medtronic Maximo's tiny wireless transmitter, which is used by doctors to monitor and adjust the device without the need for surgery.

But this success at gaining access into the heart device doesn't mean that people with implanted defibrillators or pacemakers need to fear hacker attacks, the researchers emphasized. For this experiment, they needed more than $30,000 worth of lab equipment and a lot of effort. In addition, the Maximo was placed within 2 inches of the test gear, the Times reported.

But the team, which chose the Maximo because it's typical of many implants with wireless communications features, said the results suggest that too little attention is being paid to security in the growing number of medical devices with wireless communications.


Belgian Parents Face Jail Over Polio Vaccine Fight

Belgian authorities are using prison sentences to force parents to have their children vaccinated against polio. Recently, two sets of parents were given five-month prison terms for failing to have their children vaccinated against the disease. In addition, each parent was slapped with a fine of $4,100 euros ($8,000 U.S).

But the parents' prison sentences have been delayed to give them a chance to have their children vaccinated, the Associated Press reported. Due to privacy laws, Belgian officials did not discuss specifics about the cases, such as why the parents refused to have their children vaccinated or how long the parents have before they're sent to prison.

Belgium and France are the only countries where polio vaccinations are mandated by law. In the United States, polio is one of the diseases children must be vaccinated against, but most states allow exceptions in cases of religious or philosophical objections.

Polio is highly infectious and the hard line taken by Belgian officials is supported by some experts.

"Nobody has the right to unfettered liberty, and people do not have the right to endanger their kids," John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester in Great Britain, told the AP. "The parents in this case do not have any rights they can appeal to. They have obligations they are not fulfilling."

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Posted: March 2008