Features

Heart and cold

National | Doctors find new weapons against heart disease and cold ailments, while energy drinks spark debate

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

Healing hearts
Recent advances in the artificial heart have received a lot of press, but doctors say a new angioplasty procedure may help far more patients. In an angioplasty, doctors thread balloons into clogged heart arteries to restore blood flow. About 1.5 million angioplasties are performed worldwide every year, with about a third of those in the United States. While this helps numerous patients, about 20 percent develop a scar-like growth in the opened arteries. Usually patients must undergo further surgery to fix the problem, and some face a repeat heart attack. Doctors have tried all sorts of methods to stop this problem, known as restenosis, using lasers, radiation, and even gene therapy with limited success. The new treatment props open the vessels with tiny mesh tubes called stents that have been treated with a growth-stopping drug. Results announced at a European cardiology meeting showed that not a single artery in the 700 patients studied closed up after angioplasty. "It was too good to believe," said John LaSala of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. "Nothing in medicine works 100 percent of the time." The stents could be on the market as early as next year, and the number of angioplasties could jump by as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to David Faxon, president of the American Heart Association, because doctors will perform them in riskier cases. Currently, heart attacks account for one in five deaths (claiming about 450,000 people) in the United States annually. Warming up
Have researchers found a cure for the common cold? ViroPharma, Inc. of Exton, Pa., has developed the first drug that speeds recovery from the disease. It soothes symptoms within 24 hours and clears up the cold altogether a day sooner than normal. The medicine, known as pleconaril, works differently from many typical over-the-counter remedies. Instead of attacking aches and sniffles, it attacks a group of viruses-including one called rhinovirus that causes about half of all colds. It attaches to the bugs and keeps them from invading cells. Whether this amounts to a cure is a matter of debate. One set of trials failed to show statistically significant results, but another found subjects recovering in three days instead of four. Experts say that a one-day reduction is the best people can hope for, since the cold virus is so short-lived. Pleconaril "really represents the first effective treatment for a rhinovirus illness," said Frederick Hayden of the University of Virginia. Pleconaril's biggest challenge may be safety concerns. So far, researchers have found no significant side effects except for a slight, temporary rise in cholesterol levels. Experts expect the FDA to examine pleconaril very carefully, since it's such a powerful drug for a nonlethal disease. "The safety issues are dramatic," said Scott Hammer, a virus expert at Columbia University. "They will be looked at very, very carefully." If approved by the FDA, ViroPharma plans to market the drug under the name Picovir and sell it by prescription for about $40. Pure energy?
Are energy drinks healthy? Some doctors and nutritionists are concerned about the various concoctions of caffeine, sugar, and herbs that are stocked on store shelves. The makers say their products are harmless. The Austrian potion known as Red Bull accounts for over half the energy drinks sold in the United States, but health officials in Canada, France, Norway, and Denmark have yet to approve it for sale. They claim the drink and its competitors give high doses of caffeine to those who already consume too much. They also complain that it contains a stimulant that should not be combined with alcohol, as it is in the Red Bull-and-vodka mixtures sometimes served up by bartenders. Australia requires a warning label on energy drinks: "This food is not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women, and individuals sensitive to caffeine." Critics call this overkill. Beverage bottlers say the concoctions are perfectly safe as long as people stay hydrated, since caffeine is a diuretic. Red Bull aggressively promotes its drink's stimulant effect, suggesting that customers use it during long drives, all-night study sessions, and before strenuous exercise. It claims to "stimulate body and mind" and improve the drinker's "overall feeling of well-being." Energy drinks' popularity started in bars and nightclubs where young people wanted to stay up all night partying. They spread to grocery and convenience stores, and mainstream companies like Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and Pepsi Cola have created their own versions.

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