Health Highlights: Feb. 21, 2011

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

Drug Shortages Hitting Hospitals Across the U.S.

An undersupply of about 150 drugs — due to federally mandated holdups in manufacturing — is causing physicians at hospitals across the United States to turn to older drugs instead.

According to the Chicago Tribune, shortages of medicines used to treat cancer and other illnesses are also causing some hospitals to pay much higher prices as wholesalers stockpile needed drugs.

Much of the blame for the shortages is being directed at the federal government’s new efforts to ensure that drugs are safe. In some cases, that involves the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demanding that manufacturing is halted while quality concerns are straightened out, the Tribune explained.

But this year, that’s meant holdups in the availability of many drugs, about 60 of which are deemed “medically necessary” by federal health officials.

“These are the worst shortages I have ever seen,” Thomas Wheeler, a long-time hospital pharmacist and director of pharmacy for Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told the Tribune. “The most troubling aspect is that it is critical drugs for which there are limited alternatives. Many are involved in cancer care and surgery.”

According to the Tribune, consolidation within the pharmaceutical industry also means there are now fewer companies making medicines. For example, when Teva Pharmaceuticals Ltd. — a major maker of generic cancer drugs — temporarily closed its plant in Irvine , Calif. last April due to quality concerns, that left doctors with a restricted supply of a wide range of cancer drugs.

The issue has come to the attention of Capitol Hill. Last week, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill that would force drugmakers to provide early notification to the FDA “when a factor arises that may result in a shortage,” according to a joint statement, the Tribune reported.


Scientists ID Gene Helping to Drive Breast Cancer

British researchers report they’ve identified a gene that may help cause an aggressive form of breast cancer. The gene, dubbed ZNF703, is the first such “oncogene” to be identified in the past five years.

The scientists said that ZNF703 becomes overactive in one in every dozen breast cancers, the BBC reported. Oncogenes typically play a role in instructing cells to divide, but if something goes awry that function goes into overdrive, causing a proliferation of cells.

Scientists at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, looked at gene activity in almost 1,200 breast tumor samples, as well as breast cancer cells grown in lab cultures. They gradually eliminated genes until they pinpointed ZNF703 as the culprit behind overactivity. In two patients, the gene was the cause of cancer development.

“This is exciting because it’s a prime candidate for the development of new breast cancer drugs designed specifically to target tumors in which this gene is overactive,” Dr. Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, told the BBC. “Hopefully, this will lead to more effective cancer treatments in the future.”

The findings were published in EMBO Molecular Medicine.


Obama Administration Rescinds Bush-Era Rule on Providers of Abortions

The Obama Administration has rescinded most of a 2008 rule that gave broad protections to health care workers whose religious or moral beliefs were in conflict with the provision of abortion, sterilization and other medical procedures.

According to The New York Times, Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the rule could “negatively impact patient access to contraception and certain other medical services.”

She stressed that federal laws already assert that health care providers do not have to perform or assist in abortions against their will. But the new rule — put in place at the very end of the Bush administration — extended beyond that, she said.

Reaction to the move on Friday was mixed.

“The administration’s action today is cause for disappointment,” Deirdre A. McQuade, a spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Secretariat at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Times.

But Clare M. Coleman, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which represents family planning clinics nationwide, told the Times that the Obama administration’s move was peeling back “the most harmful elements” of the Bush rule.