Nation roundup for December 17


‘Hobbit’ bests debut by ‘Rings’

NEW YORK (AP) — Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” led the box office with a haul of $84.8 million, a record-setting opening better than the three previous “Lord of the Rings” films.

The Warner Bros. Middle Earth epic was the biggest December opening ever, surpassing Will Smith’s “I Am Legend,” which opened with $77.2 million in 2007, according to studio estimates Sunday. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” also passed the December opening of “Avatar,” which opened with $77 million. Internationally, “The Hobbit” also added $138.2 million, for an impressive global debut of $223 million.

Despite weak reviews, the 3-D adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first novel in the fantasy series was an even bigger draw than the last “Lord of the Rings” movie, “The Return of the King.” That film opened with $72.6 million. “The Hobbit” is the first of another planned trilogy, with two more films to be squeezed out of Tolkien’s book.

While Jackson’s “Rings” movies drew many accolades — “The Return of the King” won best picture from the Academy Awards — the path for “The Hobbit” has been rockier. It received no Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, though all three “Rings” films were nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture.

Particularly criticized has been the film’s 48-frames-per-second (double the usual rate), a hyper-detailed look that some have found jarring.

Tobacco industry is taking a break

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Talk about a smoke break.

Tobacco companies have introduced almost no new cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products in the U.S. in more than 18 months because the federal government has prevented them from doing so, an Associated Press review has found.

It’s an unprecedented pause for an industry that historically has introduced dozens of new products annually, and reflects its increasingly uneasy relationship with the Food and Drug Administration, which in 2009 began regulating tobacco.

Officials at the FDA say the reviews of applications for new products have taken so long because of “significant deficiencies” and because the agency is taking extra care in reviewing products that pose public health risks. Industry executives say cigarettes haven’t changed in any meaningful way and the delays don’t make sense. They say the changes are as simple as a brand name change, cigarette filters or, in some cases, different packaging.

Pharmacy is sued over meningitis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Dennis O’Brien rubs his head as he details ailments triggered by the fungal meningitis he developed after a series of steroid shots in his neck: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, exhaustion and trouble with his speech and attention.

He estimates the disease has cost him and his wife thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and her lost wages, including time spent on 6-hour round trip weekly visits to the hospital. They’ve filed a lawsuit seeking $4 million in damages from the Massachusetts pharmacy that supplied the steroid injections, but it could take years for them to get any money back and they may never get enough to cover their expenses. The same is true for dozens of others who have sued the now-shuttered New England Compounding Center.

“I don’t have a life anymore. My life is a meningitis life,” said the 59-year-old former school teacher who got the shots after having a series of neck and back surgeries, adding that he’s grateful he survived.

His is one of at least 50 federal lawsuits in nine states that have been filed against NECC, and more are being filed in state courts every day. More than 500 people have gotten sick after receiving injections prepared by the pharmacy, including about 370 cases of a rare fungal form of meningitis.

Cells to soon be used to hail taxis

NEW YORK (AP) — Raising your arm and yelling “taxi!” is the old-fashioned way to nab a New York City cab. Soon, all you’ll need is a smartphone app.

New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission on Thursday approved a pilot program allowing riders to “e-hail” yellow cabs, starting Feb. 15 on a test basis. Until now, the city has banned yellow taxis from prearranging rides.

“We should not ignore technology that’s out there. This is not speculative, this is real,” Commissioner David Yassky said.

The commission issued a news release after the vote celebrating what it called “appy days ahead.”

The system will be tried out for one year. After the free apps start linking customers with drivers in mid-February, the commission will produce quarterly reports on the program’s success, leading to a decision on whether to extend it.

At least a dozen companies are ready to provide the service.

Cancer agency’s woes increasing

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas put up $3 billion in taxpayer money and promised cancer breakthroughs. But a criminal investigation, widespread rebuke from scientists and the resignations of embattled state officials came faster than medical discoveries.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas launched in 2009, flaunting the second-biggest trough of cancer research dollars in the country. Nobel laureates eagerly took jobs with the agency and celebrity Lance Armstrong lent visible and then-coveted support. It was an unprecedented state-run battle against a worldwide killer.

Three years later, it’s become unhinged by suggestions of politics and personal profit and is on the ropes.

“People expected that we get some good results. Not that we make people rich in private companies doing cancer research,” said Cathy Bonner, a cancer survivor who was a close aide to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and who helped brainstorm the idea for CPRIT.

“I can’t imagine anything lower than misuse of research money that’s meant to save people’s lives.”

Embroiled by two lucrative grants approved despite scant review — or none at all, in one case — CPRIT is ending a year of turmoil saying the beleaguered agency is cooperating with separate prosecutor investigations. One is by a public corruption unit that convicted former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money laundering charges, and is beginning this probe trying to recover key internal emails CPRIT says it cannot retrieve.

The investigations opened last week after CPRIT revealed its latest and most serious blunder: Giving a private biomedical startup, Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, an $11 million award in 2010 without ever scrutinizing the merits of the company’s proposal. The discovery came on the heels of the agency funding a $20 million project roundly condemned for not first undergoing an independent scientific review.

On Friday, the federal National Cancer Institute — which confers CPRIT the prominent status of being an approved funding entity — confirmed it was evaluating “recent events” at the state agency.

Amid the escalating troubles, an agency that doled out more than $800 million in three years has practically ground to a halt.

CPRIT’s peer-review boards that evaluate research proposals are empty — virtually all members quit in protest, including the chief science officer and the head of the science review council, both Nobel prize winners. They didn’t leave quietly: Dr. Phillip Sharp, professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said agency leaders “dishonored” the integrity of the independent review process and suggested “suspicions of favoritism” were at hand.

On the other end of treating cancer — putting drug discoveries on the market and in the hands of patients — Chief Commercialization Officer Jerry Cobbs resigned in November after the irregularities behind Peloton’s funding were uncovered. The agency has said Peloton was unaware its proposal bypassed review, and the company has declined comment.

Executive Director Bill Gimson then completed an extraordinary purging of the agency’s leadership last week, saying he would step down from the $300,000-a-year job he held since CPRIT formed. His Dec. 10 resignation letter is dated the same day the Texas attorney general’s office informed Gimson it was launching a wide inquiry into the agency’s operations.

Months of upheaval has become even too much for one public relations superpower. Hill & Knowlton Strategies severed its consulting deal with CPRIT last week, telling the agency in a letter that “the ongoing issues and challenges that have confronted the organization over recent months have greatly exceeded the scope of work outlined in the original contract.”

Cancer-fighting groups worry Texas lawmakers will be next to abandon CPRIT.

“The internal dynamics are concerning, and we need to know exactly what’s going on,” said James Gray, a government relations director for the American Cancer Society. “But the mission and work of CPRIT is vital in saving lives today, and also in the future.”

CPRIT was created with a built-in expiration date. Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2007 to launch a $3 billion cancer-fighting effort, but gave the state only a decade to do it. Apart from funding research in university laboratories and infusing private biotech startups with cash — including Peloton — the agency also provides money for hundreds of thousands of preventive screenings, such as for breast cancer, across Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry and other elected leaders are now talking tough about transparency and getting to the bottom of the Peloton grant. The state’s key budget-writing committee added a review of the agency to a hearing agenda for Thursday, though there appears to be little appetite among lawmakers to cut off CPRIT.

Prosecutors launched their investigations last week without alleging any criminal misconduct. But their broad scope will include trying to recover internal agency emails surrounding the Peloton grant that Gimson has said are no longer available.

“We’ve been down that road many times,” said Gregg Cox, director of the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit.

CPRIT is among fewer than two dozen funding entities in the nation approved by the National Cancer Institute. Aleea Farrakh Khan, an NCI spokeswoman, said the institute has not directly contacted CPRIT during its evaluation and no decisions have been made.

 

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