Health Highlights: Dec. 16, 2010
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:
Summit Examines Ways to Prevent Health Care Fraud
A daylong summit on ways to prevent fraud in the U.S. health care system includes health care providers, consumer experts, law enforcement officials, and local, state and federal government agencies.
The session Thursday at the University of Massachusetts in Boston was convened by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Associated Press reported.
The summit is one of a series announced this year by President Barack Obama. Previous summits have been held in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City.
In 2009, waste and fraud cost Medicare and Medicaid an estimated $54 billion, the AP reported.
No Need to Fear Synthetic Biology: Bioethics Commission
Synthetic biology poses few risks because it is still in its early stages and there is no need to impose new restrictions on, or temporarily halt, this type of research, says a report being released Thursday by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
President Obama ordered the examination of synthetic biology -- which uses the synthesis and manipulation of DNA to create new organisms -- after American scientist J. Craig Venter and colleagues said they created what might be considered the first synthetic organism, The New York Times reported.
Venter's team used chemicals to make the complete genome of a bacterium and transplanted it into a similar type of bacterium, where the new genome took charge of the organism.
The achievement alarmed some critics, but the bioethics commission said Venter and colleague did not create life. Instead they duplicated a known genome and placed it in an already living cell, The Times reported.
The commission also said there is no immediate likelihood that synthetic biology can create any truly new organisms.
"Here's something significant in science, but there's no cause for fear and dread about what is going to happen immediately next," Amy Gutmann, commission chairwoman and president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Times.
The commission made 18 recommendations, including self-regulation by synthetic biologists, better coordination of government agencies that oversee various aspects of the field, and ethics training for synthetic biologists.
"The commission thinks it imprudent either to declare a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks can be determined and mitigated, or to simply 'let science rip,' regardless of possible risks," the report said. "The commission instead proposes a middle ground an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time."
Genetic Variants Affect PSA Levels: Study
A test for certain genetic variants might improve the ability to identify men who require a prostate biopsy to check for cancer, say researchers.
Doctors generally order a prostate biopsy when a blood test reveals high levels of a protein called prostate specific antigen (PSA), even though cancer is not the only cause of high levels of this protein.
In a new study, scientists in Iceland pinpointed a set of genetic variants that affect how much PSA men naturally produce. The researchers said men with any three of the variants have PSA levels higher than average and may undergo unnecessary prostate biopsies, the Associated Press reported.
The study was published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The researchers plan to develop a test for the genetic variants. This could help doctors read and react to individual patient's PSA test results, the AP reported.
Study Offers New Details About Deadly Staph Bacteria
A new study reveals why the deadly bacteria Staphylococcus aureus primarily attacks humans and not other animals.
Vanderbilt University researchers found that staph -- which kills 100,000 Americans a year -- evolved to target specific areas of human hemoglobin in order to rupture the molecule and feed on the iron inside, The New York Times reported.
The scientists also believe that people who are resistant to staph may have genetic variations that protect these hemoglobin regions from attack.
The study was published Thursday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.
The research answers many questions about staph and suggests new directions for research, according to experts.
"It's terrific work," Frank DeLeo, acting chief of human bacterial pathogenesis at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Times. "It really is moving the field forward."
Cuts in HIV/AIDS Drug Program Cause Alarm
Health officials, advocates and HIV/AIDS patients are worried as cash-strapped states cut back on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides free drugs to HIV patients.
The program, funded by the federal and state governments, is run by the states. But they're having trouble maintaining the program because people with HIV are living longer and the recession has created more demand for the program, the Associated Press reported.
So far, at least 19 states have taken measures such as no longer covering certain drugs or tests, dropping patients, lowering the income ceiling for eligibility, capping enrollment, and creating waiting lists.
More than 4,500 HIV patients in nine states are on ADAP waiting lists or can't get into the program because enrollment is capped, says the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, the AP reported.
A single AIDS drug can cost more than $20,000 a year and many patients need to take a number of drugs to keep them healthy and alive.
Congress Approves National Plan to Fight Alzheimer's Disease
A bill to develop a national plan to fight Alzheimer's disease has been approved by Congress and is expected to be signed by President Obama.
The legislation would establish a National Alzheimer's Project to coordinate the nation's approach to research, treatment and caregiving, The New York Times reported.
The goal is to "accelerate the development of treatments that would prevent, halt or reverse the course of Alzheimer's" and "improve the early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and coordination of the care and treatment of citizens with Alzheimer's."
"If you go to war, you have planning, planning, planning," said bill co-sponsor Representative Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey, The Times reported. "Well, this is a war on a dreaded disease. We need to bring all the disparate elements together for the greatest possible result."