Headlines: September 21, 2010
by Meg Larkin
First, in government news, Congressional Republican leaders have announced their intention to disable portions of the federal health reform law. Among other approaches, Republicans intend to withhold money from agencies and officials charged with implementing the law, and to repeal portions of the law that are susceptible to attack. While Republicans do not believe that they have the votes to repeal the law in its entirety, or to override the veto that would surely follow such a maneuver, they are determined to blunt the effect of the Federal reform. In addition Republicans may aim to cut funding to the IRS, Tme money to Medicare’s managed care program. Because many popular portions of the bill are dependent on the simultaneous implementation of unpopular portions of the bill, Republicans may face substantial hurdles in unwinding the legislation even if they achieve a solid majority in the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
In regulatory news, the F.D.A. is delaying its decision on whether Avastin may continue to be marketed for use in breast cancer patients. The Agency’s review of the drug has been extended by 90 days until December 17th. Avastin, which was already approved for use in a number of other types of cancer, was given accelerated approval for use in breast cancer in 2008 after preliminary studies showed that it stopped the disease’s progression for more than five months. However, later studies submitted by the drug’s maker showed that Avastin only slowed the cancer progression for one to three months. In light of these findings, the F.D.A. is reconsidering the drug’s approval. An adverse decision for Avastin would mean that the drug could remain on the market to treat other types of cancer, for which it has FDA approval, and it could be prescribed off-label for use in breast cancer. However, many insurance companies do not reimburse patients for off-label prescriptions, and few patients could afford the high cost of Avastin on their own.
In other cancer treatment news, a new study has shown that less invasive lymph node surgery may be equally effective in breast cancer patients. In a large trial, researchers found that early breast cancer patients who had only some of their lymph nodes removed had equal survival rates to those patients who had all of their lymph nodes removed. Previously, most physicians had assumed that the more aggressive surgery would give patients a better chance of survival even though it carries the risk of serious side effects, such as nerve damage. According to the Boston Globe, “US and Canadian scientists monitored 5,611 early breast cancer patients whose disease had not yet spread to their lymph nodes. About half were assigned to get both surgeries. The other half had operations to remove only some of their lymph nodes. After tracking the patients for eight years, doctors found no difference in the patients’ survival rates.”
Finally, global warming may be linked to a decrease in cases of Bubonic Plague in the American Southwest. According to the CDC, approximately 10 to 20 Americans catch the plague each year, and between 1 and 3 die from it. Most cases come from the Four Corners area where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all meet. The plague is spread by the area’s rodent population. The New York Times reported that, “The plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, lives in the blood of prairie dogs and ferrets, and the fleas that infest those colonies can transfer it to squirrels, rats and mice, who like to live close to humans and their flea-carrying pets.” Global warming has caused an increase in night-time temperatures, which means that the soil in rodent burrows is drier. When the soil in the rodent burrows gets too dry, the fleas die off and the spread of the plague is slowed. In spite of its Dark Ages reputation, cases of the plague may now be treated with antibiotics if they are caught early.
Meg Larkin is a third year law student at Boston University. Please feel free to email her with any questions, comments, suggestions or concerns.