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WebMD's 10 Top Health Stories of 2007

Recalled Toys, Unsafe Food, Bad Bugs, New Stem Cell Source Top List

No. 5: Avandia Hopes on the Ropes?

The diabetes drugs Avandia and Actos are the two members of a class of diabetes drug known as the glitazones. (Avandaryl and Avandamet are combination drugs containing Avandia; Duetact is a combination drug containing Actos.)

The state-of-the-art drugs target one of the body's important signaling pathways, increasing the body's sensitivity to insulin. This action helps many people with type 2 diabetes who might otherwise need insulin shots.

But it's not yet clear exactly what else the drugs do. In May, Cleveland Clinic researchers set off a firestorm of controversy when they reanalyzed clinical trial data and found Avandia increased heart attack risk by 43%. Avandia maker GlaxoSmithKline says the Cleveland Clinic study is flawed and strongly defends the drug's safety.

Even with the possible increase, Avandia's heart attack risk is rather small. But since people with diabetes already run a high risk of heart attack -- and since Actos does not seem to increase heart attack risk -- the report spelled trouble for Avandia. Experts urged patients to stay calm.

Unfortunately, a study that investigated Avandia's heart attack risks yielded inconclusive results. An FDA advisory panel convened to look into the matter said the drug does seem to increase heart attack risk, but then voted 22-1 to keep the drug on the market.

That wasn't the end of trouble for Avandia. In December, a Salk Institute study showed that Avandia -- and probably Actos, too -- promotes bone loss and osteoporosis. And a Canadian study -- disputed by GlaxoSmithKline -- links Avandia to higher rates of heart attack and heart failure in older diabetes patients.

No 6: Autism Coming Into Focus

Scientists still can't agree on whether autism rates are increasing. But in February 2007, the CDC reported data from 14 states suggesting that autism spectrum disorders affect one in every 150 U.S. kids. That's a bit more common than previously thought.

Experts do agree that early treatment makes a huge long-term difference. And now researchers say it's possible to identify about half of kids with autism at age 14 months. Moreover, one study suggested that kids who don't respond to their names by age 1 may have autism. Findings such as these led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend autism screening for all kids at age 18 months and again at age 24 months.

A long-term study of autism offers hope. It shows that autism symptoms improve in adulthood, especially for children whose autism does not involve mental retardation and who have some degree of language ability.

What causes autism? Experts don't know. A small but vocal minority of parents believe that thimerosal, a type of mercury used as a vaccine preservative, is to blame. They've taken the case to court, although serious researchers are nearly unanimous in rejecting the thimerosal theory. New research reported in 2007 shows that children exposed to thimerosal in the womb are not more likely to have autism.

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