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Medicine to carry bar codes

Every medication given in the hospital soon will carry a label with a supermarket-style bar code that can be matched to patients and help ensure they get the right dose of the right drug at the right time.

Thursday's proposal by the Food and Drug Administration is part of a series of government steps to help prevent deadly medical mistakes that claim tens of thousands of lives each year.

An estimated 7,000 hospitalized patients die annually because of drug errors, where a wrong drug or a wrong dose is dispensed. The bar code system will allow nurses and others to check electronically that the drug is the proper one.

The proposed regulation, which is expected to be finalized early next year, also will apply to most drugs sold over the counter.

Drugmakers will have three years to comply, but federal officials expect they will begin using the codes more quickly.

Health workers scan a code on a patient's wristband to show what medicines are needed and when. Then they scan the intended medication. If they picked the wrong drug, the wrong dose or a pill version when a liquid was required, a computer beeps an alarm.

The computer can be programmed to catch other errors _ for instance, if a doctor prescribes a drug the patient is allergic to or a drug that will react dangerously with another medication.

Simple test might detect colon cancer

WASHINGTON _ Researchers have found a biological marker that might lead to a simple blood test to screen for colon cancer, possibly replacing some invasive techniques.

A subtle molecular change that switches on a usually inactive gene has been linked by researchers at Johns Hopkins University to an increased risk of developing colon cancer.

The molecular change can be detected in a blood test and could one day be used routinely to predict a patient's chances of developing colon cancer, said Dr. Andrew Feinberg, senior author of the study appearing today in the journal Science.

Colon cancer is the third most deadly cancer in America. Each year about 148,000 new cases are diagnosed and about 56,000 people die from the disease. It is considered one of the most curable of the serious cancers because its early stages can be detected with a colonoscopy. But studies have shown many patients dread the test, which involves drinking several quarts of a solution to clean the colon, followed by being probed with a medical instrument.

Feinberg said that to prove LOI, or "loss of imprinting," is a valid marker for colon cancer, the researchers will have to look at blood samples from many more randomly selected patients and follow them for several years. He said it might be five years before the test would be ready for general use.

"If the test proves out, then it could be used in the same way that lipid (cholesterol) testing is done now to evaluate heart disease risk," Feinberg said.