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Health Highlights: Dec. 10 2002

Stanford U. to Clone Human EmbryosEU Court Upholds Tough Tobacco Law Santa May be Good For Your Health, New Study Says Actor Reeve's Brain Function Surprises Experts Docs Warn Against 'Skinny Pill' for Kids FDA Orders Ban on Certain Drug Imports

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

Stanford U. to Clone Human Embryos

Stanford University says it plans to clone human embryos, to produce stem cells for medical research, according to the Associated Press.

The project will be carried out by the university's new Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. The institute is being funded by a $12 million anonymous donation to the school, the AP says.

The bulk of the research will focus on developing treatments for cancer. Stem cells created by the project will be shared with outside researchers, many of whom "complain of inadequate access to currently available stem cell lines," the AP says.

The institute is being led by Dr. Irving Weissman, an outspoken stem cell research proponent. While serving as chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel, he testified before the U.S. Senate earlier this year in favor of cloning human embryos as a supply source for stem cells, the wire service says.

Scientists suspect that "embryonic stem cells, which are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into all the cells that comprise a human body, can be used to treat many illnesses," the AP says.

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EU Court Upholds Tough Tobacco Law

The European Union's highest court has upheld stringent new tobacco laws requiring tobacco companies to use health warnings on their products, and banning companies from using deceptive labeling such as "light" or "mild" on their packaging.

The European Court of Justice's ruling ends a two-year battle by British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial Tobacco to force the EU to soften the new tobacco laws, which also limit the amount of nicotine contained in a pack of cigarettes. Despite the challenge, the court backed the regulations in every respect except in applying EU standards to export tobacco products, the BBC reports.

The law states that health warnings must cover 30 percent of the front of cigarette packets and 40 percent of the back. It's also expected that cigarette packages will eventually carry graphic images depicting health risks.

Responding to the court ruling, BAT's corporate affairs director said, while the company favors fact-based regulations, "we seek to maintain the rights of our adult consumers to receive full information about our products without having to suffer fallout from the Commission's crusade against the tobacco industry."

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Santa May be Good For Your Health, New Study Says

Believing in Santa can be good for your well-being, especially if you're a sick child confined to a hospital bed, new Canadian research suggests.

A survey of 45 children hospitalized for cystic fibrosis, leukemia and diabetes showed that chronically ill kids "tend to believe in Santa Claus longer," and that can be helpful to both patient and doctor, researcher and Canadian pediatrician Claude Cyr told the Montreal Gazette.

St. Nick represents a positive life force, said Cyr, and the fantasy distracts children from their pain, particularly if doctors talk to them about Santa Claus. "It's really important for them to still be children, even if they are in an adult world like the hospital or the intensive care unit with lots of strangers."

The study is published in today's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

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Actor Reeve's Brain Function Surprises Experts

Actor Christopher Reeve's continued progress since he was left paralyzed seven years ago by a spinal cord injury runs contrary to the long-held medical belief about brain function that if "you don't use it, you lose it."

The 50-year-old actor's brain has preserved a near-normal ability to detect feelings and direct movement, according to tests administered at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

For years, animal studies have shown that when a spinal cord is severed, nerve impulses to parts of the brain are blocked. The brain reorganizes itself and, in time, doesn't react at all to signals from the paralyzed parts of the body, the Associated Press reports.

Dr. Maurizio Corbetta of Washington University said that while Reeve's brain shows some reorganization, it also exhibits "strong evidence for stability which goes against the principle of 'use it or lose it'." Another surprise, said Corbetta, is that Reeve's brain still receives signals from his paralyzed body, even though the injury disrupted most of those signals.

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Docs Warn Against 'Skinny Pill' for Kids

A $40 diet supplement for children being sold over the Internet contains herbal substances that could cause permanent organ damage, health experts tell CNN.

The so-called "skinny pill for kids" contains three herbs -- uva ursi, juniper berry, and buchu leaf -- that act as diuretics, meaning they cause the body to lose water.

While the Physicians' Desk Reference urges doctors not to give such products to children under age 12 due to concerns about possible kidney and liver damage, the "skinny pill" is being marketed to children ages 6 to 12, CNN says. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate alternative medicines, and steps in only if a product is proven unsafe.

The network reports that the marketer of the supplement says that although her company has not performed safety tests on children, she insists that the product is "perfectly safe." Experts cited by CNN disagree, insisting that not only is the product dangerous, there's no proof that it works -- either in children or among older people who take a similar product formulated for adults.

Warns Keith Ayoob, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association: "It's not going to help people lose weight. It's junk science."

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FDA Orders Ban on Certain Drug Imports

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered customs officials to seize any imports of certain drugs, saying they are too dangerous to allow Americans to use them without a doctor's prescription and supervision.

Concerned about purchases made over the Internet and by Americans traveling from Canada or Mexico, the FDA has applied the tighter controls to the following drugs:

  • Accutane (isotretinoin) -- Prescribed for treatment of severe acne.
  • Actiq (fentanyl citrate) -- For management of severe cancer pain in patients who are tolerant to opioid therapy.
  • Clozaril (clozapine) -- For management of severe schizophrenia in patients who fail to respond to standard drug treatments.
  • Lotronex (alosetron hydrochloride) -- For treatment of severe irritable bowel syndrome in women.
  • Mifiprex (mifepristone or RU-486) -- For termination of early pregnancy (the so-called "abortion pill).
  • Thalomid (thalidomide) -- For acute treatment of leprosy.
  • Tikosyn (dofetilide) -- For maintenance of normal sinus rhythm in patients with certain irregular heartbeats.
  • Tracleer (bosentan) -- For treatment of severe high blood pressure.
  • Trovan (trovafloxacin mesylate or alatrofloxacin mesylate injection) -- For treatment of severe, life-threatening infections.
  • Xyrem (sodium oxybate) -- For treatment of a complication of narcolepsy; it's a form of the so-called "date-rape drug" GHB.
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