Health Highlights: March 25, 2011

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

New Drug for Advanced Melanoma Approved by FDA

A new injectable drug touted as the first to prolong the lives of patients with melanoma has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The immune system-stimulating drug Yervoy (ipilimumab) from Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. was approved to treat patients with late-stage or metastatic melanoma. Currently only two other drugs have FDA approval for treatment of advanced melanoma and neither of them has been shown to significantly extend patients’ lives, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA’s approval of Yervoy was based on a Bristol-Myers study of 676 patients with advanced, inoperable melanoma who had failed to respond to two other treatments. They were randomly assigned to receive either: Yervoy alone, Yervoy and another immune-stimulating treatment; or the other immune-stimulating treatment alone.

Patients who received Yervoy alone lived an average of 10 months, compared to six months for those in the other groups. However, some of the patients who received the new drug survived longer than six years. This suggests that the drug could be targeted at patients most likely to respond, the AP reported.

While 85 percent of patients showed little response to Yervoy, the response rate should improve as the drug is used earlier in the disease process, according to researchers.

“Clearly this is not a home run, but it’s a solid base hit,” Tim Turnham, director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, told the AP. “And because we see other things in the pipeline, we think this the first in a series of important new therapies for melanoma.”

“I think the direction this is headed is toward intervening earlier, when patients’ immune systems are still intact, rather than waiting until they are so sick,” Dr. Anna Pavlick, director of the New York University’s melanoma program, told the AP.

She is a spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation, which helped conduct several early-stage trials of Yervoy.

Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer and is the fastest growing type of cancer in the U.S. in terms of new diagnoses, the AP reported. Last year, about 68,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with melanoma and about 8,700 people died from the disease, says the American Cancer Society.


Threat of Hunger Plagues Millions of Americans: Report

About 15 million American households (50 million people) believed they didn’t have enough money or couldn’t get enough money for food at some time during 2009, according to a new report.

The Map the Meal Gap document by the hunger relief charity Feeding America is based on food insecurity data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ABC News reported.

While it seems contradictory, there’s a link between food insecurity and obesity, say nutrition experts.

“If people are food insecure, they can often place a priority on obtaining as much food as possible for the cheapest price,” Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., told ABC News.

That can lead them to so-called “value meals” at fast food restaurants or cheap, processed foods that have more calories than nutrients.


Parents Need to Know Children’s BMI: Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama says she is paying closer attention to her two daughters’ body mass index (BMI) figures after learning that their numbers were “creeping upwards,” and urged other parents to learn more about the important health statistic.

BMI combines weight and height measurements to calculate body fat and is considered a more reliable indicator of obesity than weight alone, Agence France-Presse reported.

Childhood obesity is the U.S. first lady’s signature cause. But writing on’s website, she said she “didn’t really know what BMI was.”

“I certainly didn’t know that even a small increase in BMI can have serious consequences for a child’s health,” she added, AFP reported.

The Obamas have two daughters, Malia 12, and Sasha, 9.