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HEALTH REPORT – New Heart Drug Shows Promise in African Americans - 2004-11-16

Broadcast: November 17, 2004

This is Bob Doughty with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Heart failure is a disease where the heart cannot pump enough blood to the body. Fluid collects in the lungs. People who develop heart failure are generally older. They feel tired and short of breath. Half the people die within five years.

Heart failure affects an estimated five million Americans. But African Americans are two and one-half times more likely to develop it. Now, an experimental treatment appears to increase their chance of survival.

Heart failure is usually treated with drugs called ACE inhibitors. But research has suggested that these drugs do not work as well in blacks as in whites. The difference may be linked to lower levels of nitric oxide in the blood of African Americans with heart failure. This chemical in the body helps blood flow.

So a company in Massachusetts, NitroMed, developed a treatment called BiDil. This combines two existing medicines to increase the amount of nitric oxide in the blood. Earlier studies failed to prove its effectiveness. But those studies involved mostly white patients. Scientists later re-examined the results and saw signs that it did help black patients.

As a result, NitroMed began a study of more than one thousand black people. They took traditional drugs for heart failure and either BiDil or an inactive substance. The study found that the patients who took BiDil had a forty-three percent better chance of survival after one year. They also needed fewer hospital visits.

Doctor Anne Taylor, a professor at the University of Minnesota, reported on the study at a meeting of the American Heart Association. The findings appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine.

NitroMed has been preparing to ask for federal approval of its treatment. Such approval was rejected after the earlier studies.

Some people, though, are uneasy with the idea of what is known as a "race-based therapy." That is, a drug developed for just one group with a disease common in the general population. Yet some doctors think the new pill might help the larger population as well.

The heart association says heart failure can be caused by disorders present at birth, or by a virus that damages the heart muscle. But it says the same things linked to heart attacks can also cause heart failure. These include smoking, being overweight, eating high-fat foods and not getting exercise.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty.