Wednesday, January 6, 2010

November/December 2009 News Briefs

Reduction of Funding for Massachusetts Disease Prevention Programs

Jeremy Nowak

Due to drastic Massachusetts state budget cuts, the state Department of Health will lose approximately $32 million, or about 9% of its non-hospital budget. Among the programs losing money are the smoking cessation effort (its funds will be cut by about 10%), teen pregnancy, youth violence, and suicide. The Center for Primary Care Recruitment, a program which helps pay for doctors’ medical school debts if they work for community health centers, will lose all of its state funding. The reductions will officially be released by Massachusetts state governor Deval Patrick in the next few days.

New Replacement Valves Could be the Latest Advancement in Cardiology

Jeremy Nowak

Companies Edwards Lifesciences and Medtronic are racing against each other to see who will first put the newest advancement in cardiology on the market. Both companies are designing new replacement valves which have the potential to repair the heart without open-chest surgery. The valves can be implanted directly into the heart via thin tubes known as catheters. These catheters can be inserted via an incision near the groin or the ribs and they release the valve near the heart, compressing the dead tissue and extending the lives of patients who are too weak to receive open heart surgery. While not yet available in the United States, these new valves have been present in Europe for about 18 months and have had sales of about $100 million. If approved by the FDA, these new valves could be placed on the market within the next two years.

If these replacement valves are put on the market, there would most likely be a huge drop in valve-related disease deaths (currently about 20,000 people a year die from these diseases). However, this technology would be very expensive for the average patient. A current replacement valve costs about $5,000 and these new valves in Europe sell for about $30,000. Another issue is what circumstances these new valves should be used in. The success rate of open-heart surgery is very high and the valves used in the surgery typically last from 10 to 15 years. The lifespan of the newer valve is not yet known.

A New Antipsychotic on the Market

Marina Bartzokis

After 13 years of developing the drug Fanapt, Vanda Pharmaceuticals is looking forward to having the antipsychotic finally be put on the market. Fanapt functions as an antipsychotic by blocking neurotransmitter signals involved in the parts of the brain active in schizophrenics. What makes it different is that it targets neurotransmitters that are more “relevant,” and thus posses less side effects than other similar drugs on the market. It was initially developed by Titan Pharmaceuticals and was then bought by the pharmaceutical giant, Novartis. After the FDA gave the drug a negative ruling last year, however, investors and Novartis jumped ship. Novartis sold the drug to the former head of their pharmacogenetics unit, Mihael Polymeropoulos, who was in the process of starting up his own pharmaceutical company, Vanda Pharmaceuticals (the name under which Fanapt will currently be marketed). Since then, studies regarding Fanapt have been more positive. Novartis has since bought back the product to assist in its release into the market. As a result of the transfer of rights to the drug, however, Titan will receive royalties and Novartis will also collect a portion of the profits.

Value of Exercise May Not Be What It Appears

Kristin Bradley

Recent studies have indicated that the benefits of exercise may not be as widespread as believed in the past. Exercising has been shown to decrease the risk of developing both diabetes and heart disease, but the correlation between exercise and protection against heart disease is strongest in people who previously did not exercise regularly. The link between exercise and health was studied with respect to heart disease and certain types of cancers, but it is difficult to assess because active people tend to be well-educated and lead healthier lifestyles, which could cause their protection against disease or be an effect of that protection. Exercise has been shown to prevent the effects of osteoporosis, but this is not through the prevention of the disease itself but rather through the development of coordination that prevents falls and the resulting broken bones. There is no direct link between weight loss and exercise alone; although exercise leads to an increase in muscle mass, there is no corresponding increase in metabolic rate. Blood pressure and cholesterol levels have also shown no correlation with exercise in the absence of weight loss, and many scientists, including researchers at the University of South Carolina, believe that a combination of diet and exercise is the best way to lose weight and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol.

Evolution Still Occurs in Humans

Kristin Bradley

The Framingham Heart Study, a research study spanning over six decades and thousands of participants living in the Boston suburbs, has collected evidence that indicates that humans are still evolving. Evolution occurs through natural selection, in which differences between organisms within a certain species cause certain individuals to be more fit and survive to produce the most fertile offspring. According to Stephen C. Stearns, a biology professor at Yale, many people believe that humans are no longer evolving due to advances in medical technology. The heart study indicates that human evolution is still occurring but at a rate much slower than the finches studied by Charles Darwin, the originator of the theory of natural selection. Analysis of the data on the traits of women and the number of children they had predicts that in the next generation, women will be slightly heavier and shorter with lower cholesterol, a lower age at first childbearing, and a higher age at menopause. These predictions have raised new questions as the researchers look to investigate how much the environment influences the traits and why these traits bestow evolutionary fitness.

Cancer Today, Healed Tomorrow

Lauren-Elizabeth Palmer

Can cancer just disappear? You would probably say no, but a paper recently released in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that, yes, some cancers are shrinking or even disappearing on their own. The cancers surrounding this issue are mostly those that have to do with the endocrine system; that is cancers of the breast, cervix, prostate and testes. It seems that, with these cancers, doctors are seeing tumors shrink and even completely vanish on their own. The article suggests two plausible explanations for this fact. It is important to note that we have extensive screening processes for these specific cancers. Men and women are tested for these cancers very early and frequently. With such detailed screening processes, there are bound to be false positives or the identification of benign tumors. It seems that, in our hunt to eradicate ourselves of cancer, we are finding tumors which are not really problems and may go away on their own.

There is a second explanation, however, which seems counterintuitive. It may be that, in some cases, our cancers are just disappearing. For a few decades it seems, doctors have been observing the spontaneous self-healing of testicular cancers. It seems that tumors in the testes show up and the simply go away without treatment leaving only a scar. This same sort of vanishing act is employed by kidney tumors as well. This issue has caught the attention of enough researchers that a countrywide study is currently underway which measures the progression of patients with kidney tumors.
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