This week's RFE/RL Health Report is concerned with ongoing preparations for the special UN General Assembly Session on HIV/AIDS. It also deals with recent developments in the fight against cancer, including approval in the U.S. of a new drug that appears to stop the growth of some cancer cells. Experts say the drug is among the first fruits of research that may revolutionize cancer treatment. Our correspondent K.P. Foley reports:
UN Works On Draft For Special HIV/AIDS Session
Washington, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations says that what it calls an intensive round of negotiations is underway in New York City this week on a revised draft of a "Declaration of Commitment," that will be submitted to the special General Assembly Session on HIV/AIDS next month.
To date, more than 20 heads of state or government have confirmed plans to attend the 25-27 June conference. The purpose of the special session is, as the UN puts it, to galvanize global action to combat the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The co-chair of the session, Australia's UN Ambassador Penny Wensley, says halting the spread of the epidemic "requires both a solid political commitment as well as determined mobilization of resources." The UN says the Declaration of Commitment is likely to outline specific targets for fostering global cooperation to lessen the social and economic impacts of the epidemic, prevent its spread, and ensure proper care and support.
In recent remarks to reporters, the chief HIV/AIDS researcher in the U.S., Anthony Fauci, says prevention needs two elements to succeed. The first is education for people about how to change behaviors that put them at risk for contracting the HIV infection that leads to AIDS. Second, he says, is development of a vaccine to protect people from the HIV infection. Fauci is director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"Whenever you have a disease like HIV/AIDS that's transmitted by sexual contact -- by blood or blood products -- the only way you're really going to have effective prevention methods is when you combine behavioral modification and education with the time-honored and proven methods of prevention, which is vaccine. If you look at the track record of vaccines on so many diseases that have been devastating to the world, it's when you get a vaccine that you could really nail down prevention."
While medication can control HIV, there is no inoculation against it and there is still no cure available for AIDS, which is always fatal.
Researchers Excited By Developments in Cancer Fight
The head of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) says science is on the verge of discoveries that will revolutionize the treatment of many forms of cancer.
NCI director Richard Klausner says breakthroughs on both early detection and improved treatment are imminent because researchers are now able to focus on fighting cancer at the molecular level.
Klausner told a U.S. Senate hearing on cancer research that what he described as the convergence of scientific advances in cancer biology, chemistry, and screening has given scientists "the potential to exploit molecular targets for cancer treatment and the opportunity to revolutionize cancer drug discovery."
Klausner says cancer specialists "are developing a whole new generation of cancer treatments," such as "smart drugs that target the molecular features characteristic of a particular type of cancer." However, he says it is impossible to predict when a new treatment will be available for doctors to prescribe for their patients.
"We're going to have cures but I think there's going to be numerous cures. They're going to have to be aligned to the different types of diseases. On a date, it is very hard to say. What I can say is that what is lined up at the starting gate for the first time are the types of drugs and the types of targets that will give us the cure."
Klausner says these targets include understanding the consequences of fundamental molecular changes in cancer "such as those that spur blood vessel growth to nourish tumors or the means by which tumors spread by invading surrounding tissue and migrating from their site of origin." He says that for breast cancer alone, more than 75 potential targets have already been identified.
Cancer specialists are excited about one of these new drugs that fights cancer at the molecular level because it appears to block the growth of new cancer cells. The medication is called Gleevec -- also known as STI571 -- and researchers say it seems to work against more than one type of cancer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug for use by cancer patients just this month after trials showed great success in controlling a type of blood cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). CML is a disease in which too many white blood cells are made in the bone marrow. Up until now, the only possible cure for CML has been a bone marrow transplant, a procedure that can cause serious side effects or even death.
Dawn Willis, the scientific program director for the American Cancer Society, says Gleevec works by shutting down the specific protein known to cause CML.
"It inhibits all of the white blood cells that have this abnormality. But not every one of them has it. Then, the good ones will have a chance to grow. Right now, they're just overrun, because the cancer cells grow so much faster than the normal cells do."
In a statement, the NCI's Klausner said Gleevec offers proof that molecular targeting works in treating cancer "provided that the target is correctly chosen." He said the challenge now "is to find these targets."
Report Critiques Internet Health Information
A new study by a U.S. research organization concludes that for the average person, the Internet may not necessarily be the best place to go for information about health.
The RAND Corporation of California spent six months looking at both English- and Spanish-language health information served up at a variety of sites on the Internet. The study was commissioned by the California Healthcare Foundation and the results were published in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (http://www.jama.org).
The authors say that in the U.S. alone, an estimated 60 million people looked on the Internet for health information last year.
The study says that finding health information through the use of "search engines" on the Internet is not efficient, and it says that coverage of key medical information on sites in both languages is poor and inconsistent. However, the authors did say that the accuracy of the information provided is generally good.
The study concludes that people using the Internet may have a difficult time finding complete and accurate information about a health problem. That, say the authors, could adversely affect decisions people make about treatment. The report notes that the Internet still has the potential to become a powerful tool to help people make informed decisions about health matters, but they say more work needs to be done to improve the quality of health sites on the Internet.
Ukraine Loses In Bid To Sue U.S. Tobacco
A U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington has again thrown out lawsuits by three foreign countries -- Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ukraine -- against several of the biggest U.S. tobacco companies.
The decision by the Appeals Court earlier this week upheld the dismissal of the lawsuits by a lower U.S. Court. In separate lawsuits, the nations sought, among other things, to recover the costs of caring for people who developed smoking-related illnesses, such as lung cancer and heart disease. The countries wanted the tobacco industry to pay for the burden smoking placed on their national health care systems.
In its ruling, the Appeals Court said the lower court was correct in its conclusion that the countries were not directly harmed by tobacco and that their alleged injuries "occurred only as a consequence of the harm to individual smokers."