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Health Highlights: Aug. 27, 2006

Substance Found That Causes Cancer Cells to 'Commit Suicide'New Restrictions Proposed on Teenage Cosmetic Surgery in Australia West Nile Virus Hits Western U.S. States Particularly HardNew Trial Ordered for Painkiller Doctor Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty Millions of Americans Uninsured for Years

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Substance Found That Causes Cancer Cells to 'Commit Suicide'

One of the methods scientists have been testing to combat cancer is attempting to trick the cancer cells into self-destructing. An international research team now believes it has identified a substance that does just that.

The protein that causes cells to commit suicide is procaspase-3. This protein programs normal cells to die. But cancer cells have found a way to bypass the procaspase-3 activator, and that's why they multiply out of control. But the synthetic substance, which scientists call procaspase activating compound one (PAC-1), reactivates the death cycle in the cancer cells.

While this isn't a viable method to fight cancer yet, the discovery of the activator offers a significant next step in creating personalized cancer treatment. Paul J. Hergenrother, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who worked with South Korean researchers and U.S. government scientists in finding PAC-1, said the research will pay off soon. "The potential effectiveness of compounds such as PAC-1 could be predicted in advance, and patients could be selected for treatment based on the amount of procaspase-3 found in their tumor cells," he said in a news release.

The findings will be published in both the online and print editions of the journal Nature Chemical Biology. More than 20,000 substances were tested during the process that found PAC-1.

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New Restrictions Proposed on Teenage Cosmetic Surgery in Australia

A reality television show has prompted a major change in the laws governing cosmetic surgery and other body altering procedures in the Australia's state of New South Wales, which includes the city of Sydney.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that Premier Morris Iemma became "disturbed" when he learned that a teenaged contestant on the program Big Brother had had breast implants. And that incident resulted in Iemma's administration introducing regulations that will require a referral from a primary physician to a cosmetic surgeon before any procedure is done. The teenager will also have to undergo counseling, obtain parental permission and have a one-month "cooling-off period" before having the operation.

The newspaper cites American statistics from the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons showing that 326,000 cosmetic procedures in 2004 were on teenagers.

Reminding his constituents that he was the father of a young daughter, Iemma told the newspaper that he was worried about the over-obsession with body image. "We need to send a strong message that young women will be valued for who they are, not what they look like, "the Sunday Telegraph quotes him as saying. "It used to be the case that the biggest question parents faced was whether to give their children permission to have their ears pierced."

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West Nile Virus Hits Western U.S. States Particularly Hard

Living up to the first part of its name, the West Nile virus is making its presence felt this year largely in the western part of the United States.

The state with the dubious distinction of having the most cases of the mosquito-borne disease is Idaho, the Associated Press reports. That state's 116 human cases with 2 deaths has prompted the governor to order emergency nighttime spraying to control the mosquito population.

Texas has had the most fatalities -- six -- with 68 reported cases, according to CDC statistics. In all, 581 human cases of West Nile virus had been reported this year with 19 fatalities.

Why the trend westward? West Nile was first reported in the United States in 1999 in the New York City metropolitan area. Scientists theorize that birds -- which are the primary target for mosquitoes carrying the virus -- gradually build an immunity and have done so in the eastern part of the country, the A.P. reports.

This year will probably be worse than 2005, the wire service reports, CDC officials as saying, because the summer has been hot, and mosquitoes are more active in hot weather.

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New Trial Ordered for Painkiller Doctor

A northern Virginia doctor's conviction on federal drug conspiracy charges has been overturned, continuing a national debate over the discretion a physician has in prescribing pain drugs.

The Washington Post reports that a federal appeals court threw out the conviction of Dr. William E. Hurwitz Aug. 25, and this may bring about another trial for Hurwitz, whom prosecutors said was negligent in prescribing drugs like the powerful painkiller such as OxyContin. Hurwitz sometimes prescribed as many as 1,600 pills a day, the government alleged.

The jury had found Hurwitz guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

While acknowledging that the evidence was "strongly indicative of a doctor acting outside the bounds of accepted medical practice," the Appeals Court said the jury had been denied the opportunity to decide whether Hurwitz had acted in good faith by conducting his practice the way he did, according to the Post.

This had been the basis of his appeal, which was supported by a number of groups that were concerned about courts placing unnecessary limits on a doctor's method of practicing medicine. The Post quotes Hurwitz's attorney Marvin D. Miller as saying Hurwitz "believed what he was doing was helping patients with their pain."

The newspaper reported the prosecution was weighing its options on whether to appeal or re-prosecute.

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Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty

Former U.S. President Gerald Ford, 93, had an artery-clearing procedure called angioplasty Thursday at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Associated Press reported.

During the procedure, a balloon is inflated inside clogged arteries to open up the vessels. In Ford's case, wire mesh tubes called stents also were placed in two coronary arteries to increase blood flow, said a statement released by his spokeswoman, Penny Circle. She said Ford was resting comfortably in his hospital room.

John Murphy, a Mayo Clinic spokesman, confirmed that Ford had angioplasty but did not provide details, the AP reported.

On Monday, Ford had surgery to implant a heart pacemaker. He's been at the Mayo Clinic since Aug. 15, when he was admitted for what were said to be tests and evaluation.

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Millions of Americans Uninsured for Years

Nearly 17 million Americans under age 65 were without health insurance continuously for at least four years (2001-2004), says a report released Friday by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Of those people, 38 percent were Hispanic, the report noted.

Additional findings from the report included:

  • About 16 percent (6 million) of the 39 million Hispanics under age 65 in the United States had no private health insurance or public coverage at any time between 2001 and 2004.
  • The poorest people in the United States accounted for nearly one of every four long-term uninsured cases.
  • Nearly one in 10 Americans under age 65 in fair or poor health was uninsured for at least four years.
  • Adults aged 18 to 24 were most likely to be continuously uninsured. About 10 percent of the people in this age group had no coverage.

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