Health Highlights: Oct. 5, 2009

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

Health Care Workers First to Receive U.S. Swine Flu Shots

Doctors, paramedics and other health-care workers in Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee were the first Americans to receive the H1N1 swine flu vaccine as the U.S. government commenced its nationwide immunization effort Monday.

People who lined up for the vaccine got it as FluMist, a nasally delivered spritz initially reserved for front-line health-care workers, according to the Associated Press. Only 7 million doses of vaccine are expected to be delivered nationwide by the end of the week. Most states are expected to reserve these early shipments for doctors and other medical personnel.

    • Health Care Workers First to Receive U.S. Swine Flu Vaccine
    • American Scientists Receive Nobel Prize in Medicine
    • USDA, FDA to Team Up on Food Safety
    • FDA Panel Backs PegIntron as Skin Cancer Treatment
    • EU Regulators Approve Diabetes Drug Onglyza

"I needed that protection," Dr. John Eshun, a gastroenterologist standing in line at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., told the AP.

By mid-October, more than 40 million doses of H1N1 vaccine are expected to have been distributed, according to the AP. Some states, such as Arkansas and Pennsylvania, are reserving this week's expected stock of vaccine for in-school vaccinations.


American Scientists Receive Nobel Prize in Medicine

Three American scientists were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for their genetic discovery that could lead to new cancer treatments.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak found that an enzyme called telomerase may play a role in the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells, the Associated Press reported.

Researchers are currently studying whether drugs that block the enzyme are effective against cancer and whether telomerase may be involved in other diseases.

"The discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies," the Nobel prize committee said in its citation, the AP reported.

Committee members said this is the first time that two women have been among the winners of the medicine prize.

Blackburn is a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Greider is a professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Szostak is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.


USDA, FDA to Team Up on Food Safety

The head of fresh produce at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will work with the federal Food and Drug Administration to help develop new food safety rules.

The partnership is part of a joint initiative between the two agencies and comes amid efforts to improve food safety in the United States in the wake of high-profile food contamination outbreaks in recent years.

Leanne Skelton, chief of the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service's fresh products branch, will work with the FDA for six months to help the FDA develop new safety regulations for produce.

In July, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the FDA broader authority over foods, following a series of outbreaks for illness involving peanuts, spinach, hot peppers and other foods. A version of that bill is still to be voted on by the Senate, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Under the partnership, the FDA will collect information and gather feedback from the fresh produce industry, including small and organic farmers.


FDA Panel Backs PegIntron as Skin Cancer Treatment

Even though it carries toxic risks, the drug PegIntron should be approved for treatment of patients with late-stage skin cancer that's spread to the lymph nodes and requires surgery, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel decided Monday.

Studies by drug maker Schering-Plough showed that treatment with the drug delayed cancer recurrence by about nine months. However, patients who received PegIntron didn't live longer than those who weren't given the drug, the Associated Press reported.

Forty-four percent of patients dropped out of the study due to the drug's toxic side effects such as nausea, skin reactions and fatigue. Even so, the FDA panel decided in a 6-4 vote that the drug's benefits outweigh its side effects.

"I'm leaning in the direction that this may be helpful given that there are very few options for these patients," said panel chair Dr. Gary Lyman, of Duke University Medical Center, the AP reported.

Even though it's not required to, the FDA usually follows the recommendations of its expert panels. PegIntron is already approved in the U.S. as a treatment for hepatitis C.


EU Regulators Approve Diabetes Drug Onglyza

The diabetes drug Onglyza has been approved for sale in the European Union and will be launched there by the end of year, drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb said Monday.

Based on six studies that included more than 4,100 patients, Onglyza was approved for use with three other standard diabetes drugs, the Associated Press reported.

Onglyza belongs to a newer class of diabetes medicines call DPP-4 inhibitors, which increase insulin production and lower glucose production. Merck's Januvia is also a DPP-4 inhibitor.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Onglyza on July 31 and the drug is already on sale in the U.S., the AP reported.