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Personal Health: News and Notes

Biophosphonate found to cut recurrence of breast cancer

Women with early-stage breast cancer who added a bone-strengthening "bisphosphonate" drug to standard treatment reduced their risk of recurrence by about a third, according to a large study by Austrian researchers.

Because bone marrow provides a fertile ground for cancer cells released by the breast tumor, a bisphosphonate called zoledronic acid is routinely given to women with late-stage cancer that has spread, or metastasized. The new study was designed to see whether women at low or moderate risk of recurrence would benefit from zoledronic acid.

Between 1999 and 2006, more than 1,800 women who underwent breast cancer surgery were randomly assigned an estrogen-suppressing drug (either tamoxifen or anastrozole). Half of them also were given intravenous zoledronic acid every six months for three years.

More than two years after stopping treatment, 92 percent of the women who had taken zoledronic acid were disease-free, compared with 88 percent of those who did not add the drug. That's a 32 percent reduction in recurrence risk.

The study, led by the Medical University of Vienna, appeared online Friday in The Lancet Oncology. - Marie McCullough

Low dose of antiseizure meds backed for pregnant epileptics

Women with epilepsy who get pregnant can reduce the chance of birth defects by using the lowest effective dose of standard antiseizure medications, concludes a major study of 3,900 pregnancies in 33 countries.

Less than 0.7 percent of all pregnancies are in women with epilepsy, according to the study. Even though certain epilepsy drugs have been linked to birth defects, most women cannot quit the medication because uncontrolled seizures can harm both mother and fetus.

The study, led by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, used an international database to assess the birth-defect risk of different doses of the four most commonly used epilepsy drugs: carbamazepine, lamotrigine, valproic acid, and phenobarbital.

A year after birth, 230 babies had major birth defects. Low doses of lamotrigine (less than 300 mg per day) and carbamazepine (less than 400 mg per day) proved to be the safest. High doses of valproic acid (at least 1500 mg per day) and phenobarbital (at least 150 mg per day) posed the highest risk to the fetus.

"It should be emphasized," the authors wrote, "that irrespective of which of the four drugs was prescribed, the vast majority of women gave birth to perfectly healthy children."

The study appeared online Friday in The Lancet Neurology. - M.M.

Study weighs hormone therapy for women with gene mutations

Women who have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which increase the risk for breast and ovarian cancers, can safely take hormone-replacement therapy after they have had their ovaries removed, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

For such women, removing the ovaries reduces the risk of breast cancer, but, because it is often done while women are in their mid 30s to early 40s, it can also lead to early onset of unpleasant menopausal symptoms. Hormone treatments can relieve those symptoms, but in the general population, they have been linked to higher cancer risk.

The Penn researchers followed 1,299 women with one of the two mutations who had not had cancer. Among those who had their ovaries removed, 14 percent of the women who took HRT and 12 percent of those who did not take it developed breast cancer over three to five years. The difference was not statistically significant. Twenty-two percent of women who did not have their ovaries removed developed breast cancer.

- Stacey Burling

Sports drinks found likely to contribute to child obesity

Sports drinks aren't necessary for children and teenagers and are likely to contribute to obesity, according to U.S. researchers urging parents to limit consumption of the beverages.

While adolescent athletes engaged in vigorous physical activity may benefit from the carbohydrates and electrolytes provided by drinks such as PepsiCo Inc.'s Gatorade and Coca-Cola Co.'s Powerade, researchers said water should be the beverage of choice for hydration.

"For most children engaging in routine physical activity, plain water is best," Holly J. Benjamin, a coauthor of a new study published in Pediatrics, said in a statement. "Sports drinks contain extra calories that children don't need."

The study also focused on the effects of energy drinks that contain caffeine and other stimulants. These beverages can damage children and adolescents' neurological and cardiovascular systems and should not be consumed, the study's authors said. - Bloomberg News