Health Highlights: April 15, 2011

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

FDA Approves Electricity Treatment for Brain Cancer

A first-of-a-kind treatment that uses electrical energy fields to fight brain cancer has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The NovoTTF device was approved for patients with aggressive brain cancer that has returned after treatment with chemotherapy, the Associated Press reported.

The device, made by Novocure, disrupts the division of cancer cells that allows tumors to grow. The electrical signals are delivered through four electrodes attached to the patient’s head.

The FDA approval was based on a study of 237 patients that found those treated with the device lived as long as those receiving chemotherapy and had far fewer side effects, the AP reported.


Generic Heartburn Drug Recalled

A dissolvable generic heartburn drug may clump and cause problems for patients using an oral syringe or feeding tube, warns a U.S. Food and Drug Administration letter to doctors.

The drug, which is made by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and is a generic version of Prevacid SoluTabs, reduces stomach acid and is used to treat certain types of stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal reflux disease, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

The clumping problem has resulted in some patients requiring emergency medical assistance and to have their feeding tubes unclogged or replaced, the FDA letter said.

Teva has stopped distributing the product but patients and pharmacies and other health facilities may still have supplies of the drug, Dow Jones reported. The drug may carry the following labels: Sharp Corporation, Cardinal Health and Quality Packaging Specialist Inc.


Woman Who Withheld Cancer Drugs From Son Sentenced to 8-10 Years

A prison sentence of 8 to 10 years was given to a Massachusetts woman who withheld chemotherapy drugs from her young autistic son who had lymphoma.

Kristen LaBrie, 38, was found guilty Tuesday and sentenced Friday by Judge Richard Welch, who said her actions “really do chill one’s soul,” reported.

Her son, Jeremy Fraser, was 9 years old when he died in 2009. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma shortly after he turned 7. La Brie testified that she withheld the cancer drugs because she thought the side effects would kill her son.

Before she was sentenced, LaBrie wept and apologized, reported.

“I am remorseful for my actions and I wish I could have done things differently,” she said.


FDA Should Ban Weight Loss Drugs Alli, Xenical: Public Citizen

The growing number of reported health problems associated with the prescription weight loss drugs Alli and Xenical should prompt their removal from the U.S. market, says Public Citizen.

On Thursday, the consumer watchdog group issued its second petition in five years calling for the Food and Drug Administration to ban the drugs due to side effects such as liver damage, kidney stones and pancreatitis, ABC News reported.

“These drugs have the potential to cause significant damage to multiple critical organs, yet they provide meager benefits in reducing weight loss in obese and overweight patients,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

The FDA rejected the group’s first petition and it’s unclear whether it will accept the new petition regarding Alli and Xenical, ABC News reported.

Also on Thursday, GlaxosmithKline announced that it is trying to sell its ownership of the two brands of weight loss drugs to other drug companies.


Workers at Japanese Nuclear Plant Advised to Store Blood Stem Cells

Workers at the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan are being advised to store blood stem cells now in case they require them later to treat radiation overdose.

Experts say the years of clean-up work needed at the plant will put workers at risk of accidental radiation exposure. High doses of radiation can destroy the blood-making cells of the bone marrow, a potentially deadly problem. But the condition can be treated with blood stem cell transplants, the Associated Press reported.

Banking blood stem cells involves receiving injections for several days to get stem cells from the bone marrow to enter the bloodstream. Blood is then drawn and processed to extract the stem cells, which are then stored. Later, workers who are accidentally exposed to a large radiation dose could receive infusions of their own stem cells, the experts explained.

They outline their idea in a letter published online Thursday in The Lancet.

Stem cell transplants would only help workers exposed to radiation does within a narrow range, Dr. Nelson Chao of Duke University told the AP. They could recover from a lower dose and would suffer untreatable damage at a higher dose, he explained.


Breast Radiation Shield Recall Most Serious Type: FDA

U.S. health officials say the recall of a radiation shield used in breast cancer patients is now the most serious type of recall.

The Food and Drug Administration recall of the Axxent FlexiShield Mini is classified Class I, which means “there is a reasonable probability that use of these products will cause serious adverse health consequences or death,” The New York Times reported.

The silicone rubber and tungsten devices were used to help shield healthy tissue while women received radiation treatment for breast cancer. But the products were flawed and left hundreds of particles of tungsten in the breasts and chest muscles of 29 women in the U.S.

There’s little research about the long-term health effects of tungsten, but it does show up on mammograms and may make them difficult to read. This could be a serious issue for women who have had breast cancer and worry about recurrences. On mammograms, the tungsten particles resemble calcium deposits, which can indicate cancer, The Times reported.

That’s why the recall has been classified as the most serious type, an FDA spokeswoman said.


Leukemia Drug Shortage Threatens Patients’ Lives

A shortage of the leukemia drug cytarabine in the United States is putting patients’ lives at risk, doctors warn.

Shortages have been reported in 30 states and began last fall due to manufacturing delays, according to the Food and Drug Administration, ABC News reported.

For patients with acute lymphblastic leukemia (AML), the drug offers cure rates of 40 to 50 percent. Without the drug, patients have no chance of survival. There is no viable alternative treatment.

“If we can’t get this drug, then the patients are going to die,” Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, chairman of the department of leukemia, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told ABC News.