Health Highlights: May 13, 2009

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

Scientist Held for Smuggling Ebola Research Vials Into U.S.

A 42-year-old Canadian scientist has been arrested for smuggling 22 vials stolen from Canada's National Microbiology Lab, used in Ebola and HIV research, into the United States, officials from both countries said Wednesday.

Konan Michel Yao was arrested while crossing from Manitoba province into North Dakota on May 5, a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, Agence France-Presse reported. U.S. prosecutor Lynn Jordheim said Yao was carrying the unidentified materials in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag in the trunk of his car when he was detained. Yao said he had stolen the vials on his last day of work on Jan. 21 and was taking them to his new job with the U.S. National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Md., AFP reported.

    • Scientist Held for Smuggling Ebola Research Vials Into U.S.
    • Lawsuit Challenges Practice of Gene Patenting
    • Many Americans Struggling to Control Diabetes: Analysis
    • Medicare Says It Won't Pay for Virtual Colonoscopies
    • Recession Hastens Social Security, Medicare Insolvency: Report
    • Kids' Face Paint Product May Be Contaminated, FDA Warns

"This turned out not to be a terrorism-related case," Jordheim told AFP. "It appears to be exactly as he said. However, he still faces possible charges for smuggling the vials into the United States."

A Canadian health agency spokesperson said the Ivory Coast-born Yao worked on vaccines for the Ebola virus and HIV, but only had access to harmless and non-infectious materials, according to AFP. U.S. authorities tested the contents of Yao's packages and determined they were not hazardous


Lawsuit Challenges Practice of Gene Patenting

A lawsuit organized by The American Civil Liberties Union and filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York is challenging the practice of gene patenting in a case that could have wide-reaching consequences for medical research and genetic diagnostics, the New York Times reports.

At issue was a decision made 10 years ago by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to grant Myriad Genetics, based in Salt Lake City, exclusive rights to two genes -- BRCA1 and BRCA2 -- closely associated with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer and on testing methods to measure that risk. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of several cancer patients, professional organizations and genetic researchers, argues that gene patents restrict the practice of medicine and new research and block alternatives to the patented tests or interpreting or comparing gene sequences that involve these genes, according to the Times.

The specific case involved a Texas woman who had received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006 then took a genetic test to see if her genes also put her increased risk for ovarian cancer. When her test came back positive, she wanted a second opinion, but discovered that under the patent granted, there could be no second opinion, the Times reported.

Companies like Myriad argue that the patent system promotes innovation by giving firms a temporary monopoly that rewards their investment in research and development. Two panels of government experts have not found significant impediments to research or medical care caused by gene patents, and a report from the National Research Council found that patented biomedical research rarely imposes a significant burden for biomedical researchers, the Times said. But, the report added, the patent landscape could become considerably more complex and burdensome over time.

About 20 percent of the human genome, involving thousands of individual genes, are already included in patent claims, a draft report from the National Institutes of Health says, according to the Times. The report warned that it may be difficult for any one developer to obtain all the needed licenses to develop the next generations of tests.


Many Americans Struggling to Control Diabetes: Analysis

A U.S. agency analysis finds that only slightly more than half of the 18 million Americans with diabetes had their blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure under optimum control in 2006.

The summary, issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), found that about 55 percent of American adults with diabetes had their blood sugar and total cholesterol levels under control, while about 59 percent had their blood pressure under control. Improper management of these factors can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke, the agency noted.

The report also found that:

  • Only 43 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Mexican-Americans with diabetes had their blood sugar levels under control, compared with 61 percent of non-Hispanic whites with diabetes.
  • The percentage of diabetics who had their blood pressure under control did improve between 2002 to 2006 -- from 39 percent to 58 percent for blacks and from 49 percent to 67 percent for Mexican-Americans. There were also no significant differences in blood pressure control among blacks, Mexican-Americans, and non-Hispanic whites with diabetes.

The AHRQ study also said that as many as 6 million Americans may have diabetes but don't know it. Diabetes is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, with $116 billion spent on medical care for the disease, according to AHRQ's recently released 2008 National Healthcare Disparities Report.


Medicare Says It Won't Pay for Virtual Colonoscopies

Medicare says it won't pay for the procedure called virtual colonoscopy, citing what it calls a lack of evidence that the less invasive method can rid a patient of precancerous growths as well as regular colonoscopy can, the Associated Press reports.

In a memo posted on its Web site, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that the test does not qualify for Medicare coverage and noted that the procedure is performed on people without symptoms. Medicare does cover regular colonoscopies, wherein a small video camera inside a slender tube is snaked through the intestines to identify polyps and remove them if necessary.

CT colonography, or virtual colonoscopy, is an enhanced X-ray of the colon that is quicker, cheaper and easier on the patient, but involves radiation, the AP reported. Both procedures still involve drinking a liquid preparation to clean out the bowels.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force decided last fall not to approve virtual colonoscopies because of the risk of radiation to patients, among other factors. Medicare said in its posting that it took that decision into account in reaching its decision. Some private insurers cover the virtual procedure, but others don't, according to the AP. Colonoscopies can cost up to $3,000, while the virtual procedure can range from $300 to $800, the wire service reported.


Recession Hastens Social Security, Medicare Insolvency: Report

The economic recession and resulting huge job losses are bringing great pressure to bear on Social Security and Medicare funds, reducing revenues far below previous projections, U.S. officials are warning.

They project that Social Security will run out of funds in 2037, four years earlier than last year's estimate, and that Medicare will be insolvent in 2017, two years earlier than last year's estimate and just eight years out, United Press International reported. To head off a funding shortfall, the Obama administration has proposed raising payroll taxes 2 percentage points to 14.4 percent or reducing benefits by 13 percent, or some combination of both ideas.

None of the options appears palatable, however, since raising payroll taxes would be unpopular and break a key pledge Obama made during his election campaign, the officials said. Additionally, Social Security trustees said a cut in benefits is unlikely to pass because of backlash from politically powerful groups such as AARP, UPI reported.


Kids' Face Paint Product May Be Contaminated, FDA Warns

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found "significant microbial contamination" in a brand of water-based face paints used by children, and has warned consumers to stop using the products, United Press International reports.

The cosmetic paints -- manufactured by a Shanghai company and distributed across the United States -- are being recalled by Fun Express Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Oriental Trading Co., because of skin reactions in children who used the products, UPI reported.

"The FDA has learned of a cluster of adverse events in children exposed to various colors of the face paint," the FDA said in a statement. "All exposures occurred on the same day at an organized event and included rashes, itchiness, burning sensation and swelling where the face paints were applied. Significant microbial contamination was indicated in most of the products in testing by a FDA laboratory."

The FDA is asking consumers to report adverse events from the paints to state and local health officials, or by calling the FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.