Health Highlights: Feb. 22, 2011

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

U.S. Weighs Changes to Long-Term Disability Insurance Program

Major changes are needed to ensure the financial viability of a program meant to help American workers who become chronically ill or disabled to continue living in their homes, the Obama administration says.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she is considering changing eligibility criteria so that only active workers may enroll in the program. She is also in favor of adjusting premiums to rise with inflation, The New York Times reported.

The program, part of the new health-care law, allows workers 18 and older to purchase insurance from the federal government to cover the costs of long-term care if chronic illness or disability prevents them from performing basic activities of daily living.

Workers must pay premiums for at least five years before they are eligible for benefits.

The Obama administration should make any changes that might be required to keep the program in good financial health, so “no one with a disability will be forced to live in an institution,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Times reported.


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.