Health Highlights: March 30, 2010

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

Patents on Breast, Ovarian Cancer Genes Struck Down

Seven patents on the human breast and ovarian cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 were struck down Monday by a U.S. federal judge. The ruling could affect patents on thousands of human genes.

In his 152-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet said the patents held by Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation were "improperly granted" because they involved a "law of nature," The New York Times reported.

The legal challenge against the patents was launched last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Patent Foundation at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, individual patients, and medical organizations.

They said that because genes are products of nature, they fall outside the realm of things that can be patented. They also argued that the patents hinder research and innovation and limit cancer testing options, The Times reported.

Plaintiff Genae Girard said the court decision is "a big turning point for all women in the country that may have breast cancer that runs in their family."

Loss of gene patent protection could reduce incentives for genetic research, according to Edward Reines, a California patent lawyer who represents biotechnology firms but wasn't involved in this case, The Times reported.

Patents are held on about 20% of human genes.


Health Premiums Likely to Increase for Young Adults: Analysis

Health insurance premiums for American adults under age 35 may increase an average of 17% ($42 per month) under the health care overhaul, according to a Rand Health analysis conducted for the Associated Press.

The analysis did not factor in tax credits to help offset premium increases.

Insurers typically charged older customers six to seven times as much as younger clients in states with no restrictions. But the new health reform law limits the ratio to three-to-one, so the premium for a 50-year-old can only be three times that for a 20-year-old. That means younger people have to pay more, the AP reported.

However, benefits for young adults exist in the new law. Tax credits will be available for people making up to four times the federal poverty level -- $43,320 for a single person. Medicaid coverage will be available for low-income single people without children, which could provide insurance to more than nine million young adults.

In addition, many young adults up to age 26 may be eligible for coverage under their parents' insurance if it provides coverage for dependents, the AP reported.


FDA Panel Examines Menthol Cigarettes

The health effects of menthol cigarettes and how best to regulate them will be discussed this week by a new 12-member U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel.

Although the overall cigarette market in the United States is shrinking, sales of menthol cigarettes are up, especially among young smokers, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA has new powers to regulate tobacco, including limiting nicotine and banning certain products and labels (such as "low tar" and "light") that could wrongly lead consumers to believe certain products are less dangerous.

The committee, which includes three nonvoting members representing the tobacco industry, will meet Tuesday and Wednesday and make recommendations by March 2011, the AP reported.

An outright ban on menthol cigarettes is unlikely, experts said. Possible FDA actions include ordering a reduction of menthol levels, higher mandated prices, or more descriptive warning labels.

"This is the first time that all of the science will be brought together looking at whether menthol increases the number of users, makes it hard to quit, has a disproportionate harmful effect on certain people, and, if the answer to any of those questions is yes, what is the best thing to do about menthol to reduce the number of people who are harmed?" Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the AP.


FDA Scientists Go Public With CT Scan Concerns

U.S. Food and Drug Administration managers ignored agency scientists' warnings about the radiation risks associated with regular use of powerful CT scans to screen people for colon cancer, according to The New York Times.

The scientists will break their public silence at a meeting Tuesday when an FDA independent panel of experts will discuss how to protect patients from unnecessary radiation exposure.

Internal FDA documents obtained by The Times reveal that agency managers wanted to approve an application by General Electric to allow the use of CT scans for colon cancer screenings, even though FDA scientists repeatedly voiced their objections. The application is still under review.

The use of CT scans to screen for colon cancer is endorsed by the American College of Radiology and the American Cancer Society. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends doctors use a camera on a flexible tube to directly examine a patient's colon for cancer.

CT scans can deliver the radiation equivalent of 400 chest X-rays, The Times reported. About 70 million CT scans are performed in the United States every year, which may result in as many as 14,000 deaths every year from radiation-induced cancers, according to researchers.

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