Health Highlights: May 17, 2004

Exposure to Lawn Pesticides May Harm EmbryosSpending Soars on Behavior Drugs for ChildrenResearchers Discover New Breast Cancer GeneStudy: Taller Women at Higher Breast Cancer Risk Ads Prompt More Seat Belt Use, U.S. SaysFDA to Fast-Track AIDS Drugs

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

Exposure to Lawn Pesticides May Harm Embryos

Preliminary research suggests that low-dose exposure to agricultural and lawn care pesticides may damage a developing embryo before a pregnancy is even noticed.

"In research conducted with mouse embryos, injury was observed during laboratory studies with a variety of agrochemicals and lawn care products, such as weed and insect killers and fertilizers, at concentrations previously assumed to be without adverse health consequences for humans," said lead study author Anne Greenlee.

The study was done by researchers at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Marshfield, Wis. It appears in the May issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The types of injuries seen included slowed embryonic development and reductions in the number of cells comprising the embryo, both of which "may contribute to implantation failures and lengthening in time needed to achieve pregnancy," the researchers said.

Because it's impossible to define precisely the amount of chemicals dangerous to a woman's reproductive health, a cautious approach is best, Greenlee said, adding that more research is needed.


Spending Soars on Behavior Drugs for Children

Spending on drugs prescribed for children with behavioral disorders soared 77 percent in the three years ending in 2003, according to an annual survey of prescription drug purchases conducted by Medco Health Solutions.

The increase amounts to an average of $536 per year per patient, according to the pharmacy benefits firm's findings, reported by The New York Times.

Drugs to treat depression and attention deficit disorder spurred sales of behavioral drugs as the fastest-growing category of medications for children, past antibiotics and asthma treatments, the company said.

Use of attention disorder drugs by youngsters under age 5 rose 49 percent from 2000 to 2003, the survey found. And at the end of 2003, 65 percent of all children and adolescents on behavioral medicines were on antidepressants.

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required that the makers of certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) include package labels warning that the drugs posed an increased risk of suicidal tendencies among children and teens. The Medco study reviewed prescribing patterns before the warning was issued, the Times reported.


Researchers Discover New Breast Cancer Gene

British scientists have identified a new type of breast cancer gene, one that doubles a woman's risk of getting the disease. The finding could also lead to a comprehensive test to determine which women are at risk of inheriting the gene, according to the The Financial Times of London.

The international study of 20,000 women was led by Cancer Research UK. Researchers are calling the CHEK2 gene the most important gene to be linked to breast cancer since the discovery in the mid 1990s of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the newspaper said.

But there are many more carriers of the CHEK2 gene than the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. As a result, it's probably responsible for 1 percent to 2 percent of all breast cancers, said study leader Doug Eason of Cancer Research UK's Genetic Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge.

The study was published Monday in the American Journal of Human Genetics.


Study: Taller Women at Higher Breast Cancer Risk

Taller women appear to be at greater risk of breast cancer after menopause, according to a German study published in the International Journal of Cancer.

The apparent link could be explained by factors that contribute to both bone growth and breast cancer, including birth weight, diet, and growth hormone production, according to study author Dr. Petra Lahmann of the German Institute of Human Nutrition.

The research involved almost 180,000 women across Europe, according to The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

The researchers found that the taller a woman was, the greater her risk of contracting breast cancer, both before and after menopause. But the great majority of breast cancer cases are acquired by postmenopausal women, the newspaper's account says.


Ads Prompt More Seat Belt Use, U.S. Says

The federal government's "Click It or Ticket" campaign to encourage seat belt use among younger drivers and passengers appears to have worked, the U.S. Department of Transportation says.

After the TV and radio ads ran in 2003, belt use rose 7 percentage points to 72 percent for people ages 16 to 24, according to a DOT report cited by the Associated Press. The department spent $25 million on the ads, which warned motorists about increased enforcement of seat belt laws in all 50 states.

The ads ran during television shows that appeal to a younger audience, like "Fear Factor" and "WWF Smackdown," the AP says.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws that allow police to ticket drivers whose only infraction is a seat belt violation. In 29 other states, police can issue a belt-related ticket only if a driver were stopped for another violation. New Hampshire has no mandatory seat belt law for adults.


FDA to Fast-Track AIDS Drugs

The White House announced Sunday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will rapidly approve AIDS drug cocktails that could more cheaply treat people in poor nations.

The Associated Press reported that the program is open to foreign makers of generic drugs, which makes those approved eligible for purchase under the U.S. global AIDS program.

The announcement was made at a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva.

That is "a real change in policy," Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N. AIDS organization, who has been closely watching the U.S. debate, told the wire service.

The U.S. had called for more stringent standards before approving such drugs, prompting criticism from AIDS advocates that the White House was protecting more expensive, patented medications from American companies.

"This is a big market for them," Piot said of foreign generic makers. Thus, "I see an incentive for brand-name companies to get their act together to pursue fixed-dose combinations, too," the AP quotes him as saying.

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