August 08, 2013

Experimental Malaria Vaccine Shows Promise In Early Trial

A viable, effective vaccine against malaria has long eluded scientists. Results from a preliminary study have ignited hope that a new type of vaccine could change that.

An experimental vaccine offered strong protection against malaria when given at high doses, scientists report Thursday in the journal Science.

The study was extremely small and short-term. And the candidate vaccine still has a long way to go before it could be used in the developing world.

Nevertheless, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, calls the findings unprecedented.

The vaccine, called PfSPZ, protected 12 of the 15 volunteers from malaria, including all six who received the high dose. By contrast, 11 of the 12 participants who weren't vaccinated came down with malaria.

"It's true to say that this is really impressive to have this degree of protection," Fauci says about the results. "But on the other hand you have to temper it by saying the numbers are still relatively small."

The trial needs to be replicated on a far larger scale, he says. And it's still unknown how long the malaria protection lasts.

The participants in this study were all bitten by five mosquitoes infected with the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum three weeks after getting the vaccine shot.

Because everyone got exposed at the same time, this study wasn't designed to show how PfSPZ works over time. For any vaccine to be successful in the field, it would need to ward off the disease for years after the inoculation. Three weeks would be way too short.

Previous experimental vaccines have shown some effectiveness against the malaria parasite, but none have provided high levels of protection against the disease. In November, another candidate vaccine showed disappointing results in tests among young infants, though it provided children moderate protection against the parasite.

PfSPZ is different from these previous vaccines because it uses whole, weakened parasites to trigger an immune response, instead of just a small part of the parasite, like a protein on its surface.

"We don't have any vaccines against parasitic infections like malaria because the parasite is so complex. It changes itself in your body. It morphs from one stage to the next," says Stephen Hoffman, the CEO of the Rockville, Md., company Sanaria, which developed PfSPZ.

Specially, PfSPZ gets certain immune cells, called T cells, to attack the parasite directly, instead of relying primarily on an antibody response.

"The idea that somehow one is going to make a vaccine that just attacks one of those thousands of proteins, and that's going to provide long-term protective immunity has always seemed odd to me," he says. "But that's what all the other approaches are about."

Sanaria is moving quickly to conduct larger scale trials of PfSPZ in Africa. A study in Tanzania is slated to start in six weeks.

If things go well with the upcoming trials, Hoffman says, the earliest the vaccine might be available for widespread use would be in late 2017 or early 2018.

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August 08, 2013

Study Ties Higher Blood Sugar To Dementia Risk

New research suggests a possible way to help prevent Alzheimer's disease, by keeping blood sugar at a healthy level. A study found that higher glucose levels, even those well short of diabetes, seemed to raise the risk for dementia.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, and doctors have long known that diabetes makes dementia more likely. The new study tracked blood sugar over many years in people with and without diabetes. Researchers found that the higher the blood sugar, the greater the chance that people would develop dementia, regardless of whether they had diabetes.

The work involved more than 2,000 people 65 and older in a Seattle-area health care system. Results are in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.


Small declines in obesity among young kids could help stem bigger problems in the future.
(Ocean/Corbis)
August 06, 2013

Falling Obesity Rates Among Preschoolers Mark Healthful Trend

A fresh analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the tide may be turning on the childhood obesity front.

After decades of steady increases, 19 states and U.S. territories saw small decreases in their rates of obesity among low-income preschoolers. And another 20 states held steady at current rates.

A CDC map shows several Southern states — including Florida, Georgia and Mississippi — that are part of the downward trend.

"We're beginning to see a tipping point," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says. "We're beginning to see the scales tip in a more favorable, healthy direction."

The changes are small. For instance, in Florida the rate fell from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 13.1 percent in 2011. And dips in other states are similar during this three-year period. The data for the new CDC report comes from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.

Still, Frieden says the changes are encouraging, especially for this age group. He says children who are overweight during the preschool years are about five times more likely to end up overweight or obese as adults.

Now, there have been hints of a leveling off of childhood obesity rates for a while.

This map from the CDC shows decreases (light blue) and increases (gray) in obesity prevalence among low-income, preschool-aged children from 2008-2011. (CDC)

There have been measurable decreases in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia, where there has been concerted, comprehensive action to address the problem. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points to other promising case studies in cities such as Kearney, Neb., and Vance, N.C.

So, what's responsible for the declining rates across so many states? Frieden points to several federal programs. For instance, changes to the Women, Infants and Children program that provides supplemental foods and education to low-income families.

Also, as we've reported, there's been an increase in the number of moms breast-feeding their infants as the results of support programs in hospitals nationwide. These efforts may lower the risk of obesity.

And municipalities, health providers and employers across the country have introduced all sorts of initiatives to encourage healthier lifestyles. Some doctors are even prescribing fruits and vegetables for their patients.

Many pediatricians say they're much more assertive about obesity-prevention efforts, compared to a decade ago. "It used to be a very awkward, embarrassing conversation to have [with overweight families]," says Dr. Margaret Desler of Kaiser Permanente.

Now, she charts kids' body mass indexes, or BMIs, at every visit and talks with patients and their families about their eating and exercise habits. "It just opens up communication lines," says Desler.

No one is claiming a victory over childhood obesity. "It's still a very serious epidemic," says Dr. Tom Robinson at Stanford University. But he says the CDC report pointing to small declines in childhood obesity is very encouraging.

"Small changes can magnify into large improvements in health" over time, he says.


August 06, 2013

U Of I Canine Cancer Drug To Be Tried On People

An anti-cancer drug for dogs is being tested at the University of Illinois and it's showing some promise.

Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother developed the drug compound known as PAC-1 in 2005 and has been testing it since then. He told The News-Gazette in Champaign that the drug has helped many of the dogs involved in the research.

Now the professor is getting ready to find out if the drug works on humans.

The drug essentially causes cancer cells to self-destruct.

Phil Meyer of Springfield believes his golden retriever, Blaze, likely lived with cancer a year or year and a half longer than she otherwise would have because of the drug.

Human trials will be conducted on patients with brain cancer.


blood donation
(Chris O'Meara/AP)
August 03, 2013

Lawmakers Want End To Ban On Gay Blood Donors

Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley has joined more than 80 members of Congress in a renewed push to end a ban on donating blood by men who have engaged in gay sex.

The lawmakers sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting an update on theagency's reevaluation of the policy.

Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, said Friday that despite blood shortages "perfectly healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on sexual orientation.''

The ban was established in 1983 at the advent of the HIV-AIDS crisis. But lawmakers and others say there is no scientific evidence to support it. There have also been advances in blood screening technology.

The letter says progress in Health Department studies to support a policy change has been slow.


August 03, 2013

Director Of Danville VA Hospital Leaving

The director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Danville will leave this month to take over a VA hospital in Kentucky.

According to the Commercial News in Danville, Emma Mitchell announced Thursday that she will leave the VA's Illiana Health Care System. She will become the director of the Lexington VA Medical Center on Aug. 25.


Mitchell said in the announcement that she will miss her job in Danville. She became director of the VA facility in the town on the Illinois-Indiana state line in March 2012.

Her replacement has not yet been named.

The hospital serves veterans living in both Illinois and Indiana.


Many products are labeled "gluten free" on the outside of packages.
(Jon Elswick/AP)
August 02, 2013

FDA Approves Gluten-Free Label

The Food and Drug Administration issued Friday the first legally binding rules for what food companies can legally label "gluten-free."

The rules should help millions of Americans who can't tolerate gluten in their diet.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Bakers appreciate its gluey texture for making bread. But when people with celiac disease eat it, it causes their immune systems to attack their small intestines.

About 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease. But they're not the only ones seeking gluten-free food, which has rapidly grown into $4.2 billion market.

A small number of children and adults have wheat allergy. And 18 million Americans who have neither celiac or wheat allergy experience symptoms from eating wheat — called gluten sensitivity. And still others may buy gluten-free food because they're paleo, or following another diet.

Many products, from beer to flour, already carry the gluten-free label. But until now there's been no official standard for exactly how free of gluten such foods have to be, though the FDA has been pondering how to set one since 2004.

The FDA's new rule says gluten free foods can't contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Below that level, gluten can't be detected reliably and only very rare individuals would react to it.

According to the FDA, most gluten-free food on the market already meets this standard. It goes into effect one year from now.

Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, called the label a "tool that has been desperately needed," in a statement.

Doctors who treat people with celiac and gluten sensitivity were also enthusiastic.

"This is a really valuable step forward," says William Chey, a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan.


medical marijuana
(Mjpresson/Wikimedia Commons)
August 01, 2013

Gov. Pat Quinn Signs Bill Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill on Thursday, making Illinois the 20th state to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

“This new law will provide that relief and help eligible patients ease their suffering, while making sure Illinois has the nation’s strictest safeguards to prevent abuse,” Quinn said.

The plan allows doctors in a pilot project to prescribe the treatment to people suffering from certain medical conditions, like multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Mike Benner, the executive director of the Greater Community AIDS Project of East Central Illinois, said this will also improve care for those living with HIV and AIDS.

“Some of the medications that people are on are still very toxic," Benner said. "They’re able to keep this virus at bay. So, they may have some issues with food tolerance and stuff like that. So, I do believe that it’ll probably help keep their appetite so that they can eat, but also I think it’ll help alleviate with a lot of the anxiety that just living with the virus can cause people.”

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives, said medicinal marijuana will serve as a better alternative to pain relievers like morphine or Vicodin. He said those prescriptions have harmful effects.

“Those medications, which were designed to help them feel better actually ruined their lives,” Lang said.

Illinois’ medical marijuana law outlines a four-year pilot program requiring patients and caregivers to undergo background checks and sets provisions for state-regulated dispensaries.

Under the plan, patients are allowed no more than 2.5 ounces of cannabis every two weeks.

Supporters say Illinois’ law is strictly regulated to prevent those who just want pot for recreational use to get it from a medical dispensary.

The bill does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014, but it could be months after that before grow houses are set up and producing marijuana.

Meanwhile, other marijuana laws in Illinois may not change any time soon.

Attorney Brian Vicente worked to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, which passed a ballot initiative last year.

"I think that it certainly will open up a broader dialogue about whether Illinois’ marijuana laws make sense or not," he said. "I think that when they see that this product can be regulated for sick people, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know, if we’re making tax money off this, why not just regulate it for all responsible adults?’"

But Gov. Quinn did not say much when asked on Thursday about decriminalizing marijuana.

"I think today is medical and that’s our focus," Quinn said. "Patient-centered. I think this is the right thing to do for today and that’s what I’m focused on."

Last year, Chicago adjusted its policing strategy to allow officers to ticket people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arrest them.


August 01, 2013

39 Jobs Cut At Vermilion County Nursing Home

Thirty-nine people at the Vermilion Manor Nursing Home located west of Tilton are losing their jobs.

Vermilion County Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Donahue confirmed the announcement Thursday shortly after the nursing home was sold to a private equity firm for $3.4 million.

Premier HealthCare Management, which is partnering with FNR Healthcare Group, is now overseeing Vermilion Manor. Donahue said Premier did an assessment of the nursing home’s operations, and determined that it could stand to lose those employees.

“No one’s pleased when people are not employed because in this community we need employment,” he said. “We’re hopeful that’ll change over time as the resident population grows.”

Donahue said people losing their jobs have been notified, while around 130 existing nursing home jobs are still in place.

The Vermilion County Board sold the nursing home after struggling to maintain it.

A call seeking comment from the owner of Premier Healthcare Management was not returned.


August 01, 2013

U of I Phone App Checks For Food Safety

Afraid there may be peanuts or other allergens hiding in that cookie? Thanks to a cradle and app that turn your smartphone into a handheld biosensor, you may soon be able to run on-the-spot tests for food safety, environmental toxins, medical diagnostics and more.

The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food.

Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.


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