News in Brief

Johns Hopkins sets up new ALS research centre

A gift of US$25million has enabled Johns Hopkins to establish a new centre to develop novel therapies for the neurodegenerative disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. Much of the research will focus on using stem cells from ALS patients to investigate how nerve cells degenerate, to screen new drug therapies, and to develop stem cell therapies as transplants in order to potentially slow or reverse the disease

Pharmax to open manufacturing facility in UAE

Pharmax Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Ittihad Drug Store, will set up a Dh40million (US$10.9m) manufacturing facility, covering an area of 90,000 sq feet, at DuBiotech in Dubai. Pharmax will produce oral solid dosage products, including tablets and capsules for treating conditions such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, peptic ulcers, psychiatric conditions, neurological and respiratory tract disorders.

UNHRC calls for universal registration of births

The United Nations Human Rights Council has initiated a resolution on birth registration calling for the universal registration at birth of all individuals, in order to reduce the high number of individuals throughout the world who are not registered and may never be registered during their lifetime. The Health Metrics Network (HMN) and the WHO participated in consultations on the draft resolution and provided technical input. According to the WHO, 40 million, or about one third of, births are not registered each year. Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, said: “Lack ofr> birth registration not only impacts the enjoyment of rights to which all persons are entitled, but may also hinder access to a range of essential services, including health care.”

Combat cholesterol to boost chemotherapy

Johns Hopkins investigators are testing a way to use drugs that target cholesterol to enhance the cancer-killing potential of standard chemotherapy drdrugs. A cell-signalling system known as the Hedgehog Pathway, which is linked to cholesterol, has long been known to trigger many types of cancer and is the focus of five new drugs currently in development. Prof William Matsui at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center teamed up with UCLA biologist Farhad Parhami to look at how derivatives of cholesterol, called oxysterols, bind to cholesterol and guide redistribution of cholesterol throughout the body, thereby blocking the Hedgehog Pathway. The study found that when the Hegehog Pathway was blocked during chemotherapy, tumours shrank and there was a five-fold reduction in expression of Hedgehog Pathway components.

KFSH strikes deal for platelet blood system

Cerus Corporation, a US-based biomedical products company, announced that Al Shalan, Cerus’ exclusive distributor for Saudi Arabia,r> has signed a three-year agreement with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital to supply the INTERCEPT Blood System for platelets. This contract allows for the routine use of INTERCEPT to treat up to 100% of the hospital’s platelet production of approximately 5,600 units annually. The INTERCEPT system is designed to reduce the risk of transfusion-transmitted diseases by inactivating a broad range of pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and parasites that may be present in donated blood. Saudi Arabia has an estimated national production of approximately 70,000 platelet units and 100,000 plasma units per year.

Drug-resistant TB increasing, says WHO

Reports of tuberculosis (TB) cases with severe patterns of drug resistance are increasing, said experts who attended a WHO meeting in Geneva in March. Participants stressed that the emergence of drug resistance should be a wake-up call for ministries of health. The group urged the global TB community to make greater efforts to prevent drug resistance and provide appropriate care and management to avoid a scenario where TB becomes incurable. WHO is leading a process to accelerate the introduction of new drugs into clinical settings.

Syria receives US$800,000 of medical aid

Z-Medica Corporation, a US-based medical device company which develops and distributes innovative haemostatic agents, has donated US$800,000 (15,000 units) of QuikClot Combat Gauze and QuikClot TraumaPad, to aid in medical relief efforts within Syria and surrounding refugee camps. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) will deliver QuikClot products to Syrian civilians in need of medical aid. The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed during the uprising.

New book by WHO seeks to slow growth of antimicrobial resistance

A new book, titled “The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance - Options for action”, launched by the WHO, showcases examples of actions taken to slow down drug resistance and preserve the ability of medicine to effectively treat many infectious diseases. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has evolved to become a worldwide health threat. Of critical importance, every antibiotic ever developed is at risk.

Malaria resurgence linked to reduction of control programmes

Since the 1930s, there have been 75 documented episodes of malaria resurgence worldwide, most of which were linked to weakening of malaria control programmes, finds a new study published in BioMed Central’s open access Malaria Journal. The study, which is allied to the theme of this year’s World Malaria Day (25th April 2012) “Sustain Gains, Save Lives: Invest in Malaria”, found that the most common reason for weakening of malaria control programmes was funding disruptions. There are over 200 million cases of malaria each year with 85% of all cases being children under five years old and, according to the WHO, in 2010 malaria was responsible for 655,000 deaths worldwide, mostly among African children. Deaths which are unnecessary, because malaria is preventable and curable.

Link between obesity and rheumatoid arthritis

Mayo Clinic researchers say there appears to be a link between obesity the painful autoimmune disorder rheumatoid arthritis in women. They studied hundreds of patients and found a history of obesity puts women at significant risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Their findings are published online in the American College of Rheumatology journal Arthritis Care & Research, April 2012. 

WHO calls for action on World Health Day

On World Health Day (7 April 2012), the World Health Organization (WHO) called for urgent action to ensure that, at a time when the world's population is ageing rapidly, people reach old age in the best possible health.

In the next few years, for the first time, there will be more people in the world aged over 60 than children aged less than five. By 2050, 80% of the world’s older people will be living in low and middleincome countries. The main health challenges for older people everywhere are noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

WHO outlined four key actions that governments and societies can take now to strengthen healthy and active ageing, including promoting good health and healthy behaviours at all ages to prevent or delay the development of chronic diseases; minimise the consequences of chronic disease through early detection and quality care; creating physical and social environments that foster the health and participation of older people; and ‘reinventing ageing’, meaning changing social attitudes to build a society in which older people are respected and valued.

Abu Dhabi to host 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in 2015

The UAE capital has been selected to host the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) in 2015 – a triennial gathering of international advocacy, public policy and health research experts working together to achieve the goals of the world’s first public health treaty, the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC).

The WCTOH will mark its Middle East debut at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) in March 2015, when the five-day conference will convene 3,000 specialists from governmental and non-governmental organisations collaborating on medical, public health, and public policy agendas related to global tobacco control. Previous WCTOH events have been held in Helsinki, Finland (2003); Washington DC (2006); Mumbai, India (2009); and Singapore, which concluded hosting the 15th summit last month.

A decisive pillar in Abu Dhabi’s winning bid was a philanthropic financial aid policy that will provide travel grant assistance to delegates from low- and middle-income countries, especially the developing nations of Africa and Asia, where the tobacco pandemic poses the greatest threat.

World Conference on Tobacco or Health

Chan urges the world to unite against tobacco industry

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has called for the world to stand against the tobacco industry who are seeking to overturn the Australian tobacco law, which requires tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging with graphic images of tobacco-related diseases and without logos. Australia is the first country to require plain packaging. She said: “We must make plain packaging a big success so that it becomes the success of the world.” Dr Chan applauded Australia’s determination in fighting tobacco industry intimidation. “If we stand shoulder to shoulder, together, no tobacco industry can survive,” she said. “The fact that they are so desperate, I take it as an indication that the industry sees the writing on the wall. This is the death throe of the addicting industry.”

Annual cost of autism rockets to US$126 billion in US

Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organisation, announced preliminary results of new research which estimates that autism costs American society a staggering US$126 billion per year – a number that has more than tripled since 2006 – and annually in the UK has reached more than £34 billion (US$54 billion). The costs of providing care for each person with autism affected by intellectual disability through his or her lifespan are US$2.3million in the US and £1.5million (US$2.4million) in the UK.

Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, said: “Autism is a global public health crisis. The costs are staggering and will continue to rise as prevalence continues to increase. We know that early diagnosis and treatment are critical, so it is imperative that the US and governments around the world step up their commitment to helping people living with autism. The investment we make now is essential to reducing the long-term costs of autism.”

According to the research, which was funded by Autism Speaks and published in Pediatrics, mothers of children with ASD are less likely to work, work fewer hours per week and earn substantially less. Typically, as the primary caregiver, mothers are called upon to serve as their child’s case manager and advocate, and on average, earn 56 % less than mothers of children with no health limitations. They earn 35% less than mothers of children with another health limitation. They are 6% less likely to be employed, and they work an average of seven hours less per week.

Guidelines for diagnosis of Rheumatic Heart Disease

The inaugural international guidelines for the diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease (RHD), a disease that affects tens of millions of people worldwide, have been published by the World Heart Federation in Nature Reviews Cardiology.

The guidelines define the minimum requirements needed to diagnose RHD in individuals without a clear history of acute rheumatic fever (ARF), and will have important global and national implications. Diagnosis is conducted with an echocardiogram, but currently no guidelines are available to define what is normal on echocardiography.

In the absence of definitive guidance, physicians reporting on echocardiograms make decisions based on their clinical experience, and missing the disease at an early stage can have devastating consequences. “The new evidence-based guidelines clearly define not only what is considered to be a definite and a borderline case of RHD but also what is considered normal in children,” said Dr Bo Reményi, Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin, Australia.

Three categories have been defined on the basis of assessment by 2D, continuouswave, and color-Doppler echocardiography: ‘definite RHD’, ‘borderline RHD’, and ‘normal’. Four subcategories of ‘definite RHD’ and three subcategories of ‘borderline RHD’ exist, to reflect the various disease patterns.

Previous estimates state that more than 15 million people have RHD and that 350,000 people die each year while many more are left disabled. Cholera infection 10 times worse than official numbers

About 1.4 billion people live in places where they are at risk of cholera infection, according to a study published by the World Health Organization.

The study estimated that approximately 3 million people are infected with cholera every year and that around 100,000 people die from the disease annually. These figures are more than 10 times higher than the official number reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Countries are required to notify WHO of cholera outbreaks under the International Health Regulations, but WHO estimates that it only receives reports of less than 10% of cases. Dr Claire Lise Chaignat, from the Department of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases at WHO, said: “Many countries do not have adequate laboratory and surveillance systems to detect cholera. Countries are also reluctant to report outbreaks due to fear of a negative effect on tourism and trade.”

Study author, Dr Mohammad Ali from the International Vaccine Institute, Seoul, Republic of Korea, said: “Many deaths in developing countries probably occur before patients reach the hospital so statistics are likely to be underestimated. If cases are not reported then resources cannot be allocated to deal adequately with the disease. Policymakers need to know the burden of disease and the population at risk.”

The study found that the burden of cholera is highest in Africa and southern Asia, and that the three largest countries where cholera is endemic are China, India and Indonesia, although the study only considered the percentage of their populations living with poor sanitation. Researchers also considered the entire population of Bangladesh to be at risk of cholera infection due to frequent, widespread flooding.

NSABB reaches unanimous decision to release Avian flu research manuscripts

The United States Department of Health and Human Services convened the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in March to examine two revised manuscripts regarding the transmissibility of A/H5N1 influenza virus (avian flu) in ferrets. Earlier versions of these manuscripts had been submitted for publication in Science and Nature and were reviewed by the Board. This follows a moratorium on publication of this research decided by a WHO convened meeting of experts in February this year. (Reported in Middle East Health in the March-April 2012 issue.)

The NSABB is an independent federal advisory committee chartered to provide advice and guidance on the biosecurity oversight of dual use research to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, and all federal entities that conduct, support or have an interest in life sciences research. Dual use research is defined as biological research with legitimate scientific purpose that may be misused to pose a threat to public health and/or national security.

The Board was asked to consider the revised manuscripts from Dr Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center and Dr Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and to recommend whether the information they contain should be communicated and, if so, to what extent. After careful deliberation, the NSABB unanimously recommended that this revised Kawaoka manuscript should be communicated in full. The NSABB also recommended, in a 12 to 6 decision, the communication of the data, methods, and conclusions presented in this revised Fouchier manuscript.

1000 Genomes Project data available on Amazon

The world's largest set of data on human genetic variation, produced by the international 1000 Genomes Project, is now publicly available on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

The public-private collaboration demonstrates the kind of solutions that may emerge from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s new data sharing project, the Big Data Research and Development Initiative. At least six federal science agencies will be participating in the initiative, including the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, committing more than US$200million to a collaborative effort to develop core technologies and other resources needed by researchers to manage and analyse enormous data sets.

The 1000 Genomes Project records are a prime example of big data that has become so massive that few researchers have the computing power to use them. It currently stands at 200 terabytes, which is the equivalent of 16 million file cabinets filled with text, or more than 30,000 standard DVDs.

To help solve the problem, AWS has just posted the 1000 Genomes Project data for free as a public data set, providing a centralized repository on the Amazon Simple Storage Service. The data can be seamlessly accessed through services such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and Amazon Elastic MapReduce, which provide organizations with the highly scalable resources needed to power big data and high performance computing applications often needed in research.

Cloud access also enables users to analyse the data much more quickly, as it eliminates the time-consuming download of data and because users can run their analyses over many servers at once.

Initiated in 2008, the 1000 Genomes Project is an international public-private consortium that aims to build the most detailed map of human genetic variation available, ultimately with data from the genomes of more than 2,600 people from 26 populations around the world.

The 1000 Genomes Project

Cardiovascular disease affects the poor as well as the rich, says WHO

A new global analysis reveals that some of the poorest countries in the world have among the highest age-standardised mortality rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The data, launched ahead of the United Nations High-Level Meeting (HLM) on Non-Communicable Diseases, reveals growing inequalities in the cases and deaths of CVD between countries and populations, with the percentage of premature deaths from CVD more than twice as high in low-income countries compared with high-income countries.

Dr Shanthi Mendis, Coordinator of CVD for the World Health Organization, said: “Heart disease and stroke together with other cardiovascular diseases, are often wrongly seen as diseases of affluence, although they affect the poor as well as the rich. The new Global Atlas data reveal that although death rates from CVD have been declining in high-income countries over the past two decades, they have increased at an astonishingly fast rate in low- and middle-income countries.”

The Global Atlas is a joint publication of the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Heart Federation and the World Stroke Organization (WSO). The publication reveals country-specific CVD rates, therefore pinpointing where government, individual and donor action is most needed to address the growing global burden. Some of the poorest countries in the world (such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Malawi) have among the highest agestandardized CVD mortality rates. However, data from the Global Atlas also encouragingly reveals that prevention and intervention strategies to tackle CVD can contribute to a reduction in CVD events, as seen in most highincome countries over recent years.

The new Global Atlas was published ahead of the United Nations HLM on Non-Communicable Diseases taking place on 19-20 September 2012 in New York.

Global Atlas on Cardiovascular Disease

Tobacco programmes saving lives, says US NIH

Twentieth-century tobacco control programmes and policies were responsible for preventing more than 795,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States from 1975 through 2000, according to analysis funded by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health.

If all cigarette smoking in the US had ceased following the release of the first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health in 1964, a total of 2.5 million people would have been spared from death due to lung cancer in the 36 years following that report, according to analysis of the study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Since the 1964 report, tobacco control efforts in the United States have included restrictions on smoking in public places, increases in cigarette excise taxes, limits on underage access to cigarettes, and efforts to increase public awareness of the hazards of smoking.

In the study, the researchers created three scenarios: actual tobacco control (data on actual smoking behaviours); no tobacco control (predicted behaviours that would have existed if no tobacco control policies were put in place); and complete tobacco control (if all smoking in the United States had ceased as of 1965). The researchers estimated that, without tobacco control programs and policies, an additional 552,000 men and 243,000 women would have died of lung cancer in the period from 1975 through 2000, and that, if all smoking had ceased completely in 1965, as many as 2.5 million fewer people would have died from lung cancer.


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