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Therapy for hepatitis C wins early approval

A combination of two powerful antiviral drugs that proved 10 times better at treating liver-destroying hepatitis C than standard therapy won the cautious backing of government advisers Monday.

It's a complicated treatment that lasts six months: taking six capsules every day of an experimental drug called ribavirin, plus the standard therapy of interferon injections three times a week.

But 49 percent of hepatitis C patients were virus-free six months after completing treatment, versus just 5 percent of patients taking standard therapy, concluded studies by drug manufacturer Schering-Plough Corp.

Food and Drug Administration advisers voted unanimously Monday that the agency should approve the combination. The FDA is not bound by its advisers' recommendations but typically follows them.

No Propecia for women

WASHINGTON _ Merck & Co. has bad news for balding women: That new baldness pill it's selling works only for men.

Merck studied Propecia in 136 postmenopausal women suffering hair loss. Despite a year of therapy, the women who took Propecia had no more hair than women who got a dummy pill, Merck scientists revealed at a dermatology meeting in Belgium this weekend.

Merck announced Monday that women should not take Propecia, and that there's no reason to continue studying it in women.

Premature labor test

WASHINGTON _ Pregnant women are about to get a new test to help determine if they're at risk for premature labor _ by measuring a hormone in their saliva.

Biex Inc.'s SalEst saliva test works best in identifying women who are not at risk and setting their minds at ease, the Food and Drug Administration said. A woman can simply take a saliva sample at home and mail it to a laboratory for screening.

But SalEst has a much higher error rate when it suggests a woman is about to enter preterm labor, the FDA cautioned.

Faster-acting Viagra

NEW YORK _ Pfizer Inc. has signed a deal with R.P. Scherer Corp. to help develop a faster-acting version of Viagra, the popular new anti-impotence drug, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Currently, men must take the pill one hour before having sex. But under the pact with Scherer, which is based in Troy, Mich., the drug may take a new form to speed up its effects, the Journal reported in its electronic edition.