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News Briefs

Experimental Alzheimer’s Vaccine Appears Safe, Researchers Say


An experimental vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease reverses some damaging effects of the devastating brain disorder in animals and appears safe in the first tests on people, researchers reported Tuesday.

While the results are preliminary and much more work is needed, the findings sparked excitement because the vaccine represents a new approach to treating an incurable disease that is becoming increasingly common. Unlike other potential therapies, the vaccine is designed to attack the underlying cause of the disease.

“It’s a tremendous example of taking an idea that flouts current scientific concepts and taking it to completion,” said Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad of the National Institute on Aging (NIA). “It’s very, very interesting.”

Experts cautioned that many experimental treatments that work in animals end up being disappointing when tried in people. But because of the lack of treatment options, Alzheimer’s patients and their families are eager for news of any possible advance.

“The numbers of people with Alzheimer’s disease will go up precipitously as the population ages,” said Bill Theis of the Alzheimer’s Association. “We expect three to four times the number of cases as baby boomers age.”

Life Expectancy to Drop Sharply in Parts of Africa, AIDS Experts


Life expectancies in some African countries will soon drop below 30 years because of the staggering number of AIDS deaths, experts said Monday. And for perhaps the first time in their history, some nations in southern Africa will actually experience negative population growth as a result of AIDS, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The gloomy projections, announced at the XIII International Aids Conference in South Africa, contrasted with more encouraging statistics on AIDS prevention among heterosexual teen-agers in the United States. Health authorities reported that growing numbers of American teen-agers have been heeding anti-AIDS alarms by reducing sexual activity and increasing condom use.

The epidemic in Africa is the continent’s “worst social catastrophe since slavery,” said Dr. Kevin DeCock of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the Durban conference.

Nearly three-quarters of the 34 million people living with AIDS reside in sub-Saharan Africa, and deaths are increasing at a rate that scientists would have found incomprehensible only a few years ago. As the death rate rises, the average life expectancy will fall sharply, said epidemiologist Karen Stanecki of the Census Bureau.

Federal Probe Faults UPenn Animal Tests in Death of Teenager


Federal officials have uncovered multiple shortcomings in animal experiments that the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Human Gene Therapy used to justify human research that killed an Arizona teen-ager.

A warning letter that the Food and Drug Administration released Tuesday states that institute researchers, led by director James M. Wilson, used viruses that were more than two years old and past their expiration date in monkey experiments that were designed to test the treatment’s toxicity. The outdated viruses may have been less than half as toxic as the fresh doses that they planned to give to patients, the FDA said, and so may have significantly overstated the treatment’s safety for humans.

The FDA also concluded that the researchers underestimated the amount of liver damage those animals suffered -- the same kind of damage that contributed to the death last fall of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger of Tucson, Ariz.

The 15-page warning letter is the result of an ongoing investigation of three animal studies at Penn. The studies were designed to establish the safety of experimental “gene therapy” treatments that sought to cure diseases, including Gelsinger’s inherited liver disorder, by giving patients new genes.

CIA’s Defector Resettlement Program Under Fire from House


Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Tuesday asked the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to hold a hearing on the CIA’s defector resettlement program and to consider revising a vague provision in federal law to spell out defectors’ legal rights.

In a letter to Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., the committee’s chairman, Wolf said the CIA needs to reform its treatment of defectors in light of a lawsuit filed in Seattle by two former Soviet bloc defectors who say the CIA has reneged on its promises and cut off their $27,000 annual stipend.

“I believe a hearing should be held in executive session in order to begin to address how to clearly spell out defectors’ rights and the obligations of the U.S. to these people,” Wolf wrote.

Wolf also asked the committee to determine how many people have defected from China since the mid-1970s and whether the CIA has a program focused on resettling Chinese defectors. “I am concerned that the problems that have faced defectors from the former Soviet Union might affect recruitment efforts and a possible defector program concerning China,” Wolf said in the letter.

Goss expressed confidence in the CIA’s resettlement efforts but said he would hold hearings to assess how well the CIA’s National Resettlement Operations Center, a unit within the Directorate of Operations, is managing the resettlement of hundreds of defectors.

“We have a case, and it’s time to ask the question again,” Goss said.