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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Laird Birmingham

Aired June 25, 2003 - 20:53   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: There's new hope for sufferers of anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that drives people to starve themselves. Some doctors are finding that an anti-psychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disease could actually also help anorexics. Dr. Laird Birmingham has co-authored a study on the use of this drug, Alanzopine (ph), under the trade names like Prexa (ph), and he found that anorexic patients on this drug showed a 50 percent reduction in their obsessive fear of food, making them better able to accept treatment. There are some side effects we need to talk about, too, as well.
Dr. Birmingham joins us from Vancouver, where he heads the eating disorders program at St. Paul's Hospital. Thank you for being with us. How much promise do you think this drug holds for anorexics?

DR. LAIRD BIRMINGHAM, ST. PAUL'S HOSPITAL, VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA: Paula, I think it holds great promise. In fact, there's never been a single medication in the history of medicine which has had any effect on the anorexic thinking. And what we've found is that patients who have not been able to get better because their anorexic thinking is so strong, their fear is so strong, have been able to get better because there is such a decrease in that fear, which, by the way, we believe comes from a part of the base of the brain called the amigdula (ph), which we think Alonzopine (ph) affects.

ZAHN: How do you convince an anorexic patient, though, to take a pill that they know could potentially make them gain weight?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, in fact, we found in our study, interestingly, that the amount of weight gain was not greater than with other medications. The pill doesn't work by causing weight gain per se. And you're quite right, if it did cause weight gain, none of our patients would ever take it. One of the ways I prove in fact that it doesn't cause excess weight gain is by asking them, do they really believe we could have conducted a study for a year with the medication if the patients had gained excess weight? And they said, of course not. No anorexic would ever take the medication.

ZAHN: We need to underscore, though, I think, doctor, is this true, that the drug has not been officially approved anywhere to treat anorexia, although it is being used across the country?

BIRMINGHAM: You're absolutely right. I was just speaking to Joel Yeager (ph) at the University of New Mexico earlier today, and his estimate is that about 5 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa in the U.S. are on Prexa (ph), although as you say, it has not been formally recognized as a treatment for anorexia nervosa.

ZAHN: And anybody listening to that -- this report tonight and thinking there's great hope, just a final thought. What are some of the side effects are that they should be aware of?

BIRMINGHAM: The most important side effect is that about 5 percent of patients that take this medication long-term could get a Parkinson's like syndrome, like Parkinsonism, which obviously is very serious in a young person. So we're only going to use it in those patients who don't respond to usual treatment, and whose disease is very severe. And we're not going to use it for longer than necessary.

ZAHN: Well, Dr. Birmingham, I know based on e-mail I've seen over the years from women suffering from anorexia, this will be very interesting to them indeed. Thank you very much for joining us tonight. Appreciate your time.

BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Paula.

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