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Health Highlights: Feb. 23, 2007

Illinois Measure Backs Spending on Embryonic Stem Cell Research Girl Scout Cookies Dump Most Trans Fats MRI Dyes May Harm Kidney Patients Top Milk Producer Sours on Cloned Cows U.S. Experts Deny Problems With HPV Vaccine Britain to Pay Women for Eggs Donated to Research

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

Illinois Measure Backs Spending on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The Illinois Senate passed a measure Friday to spend state tax dollars on embryonic stem cell research, but opponents condemned the plan because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

The measure, which passed 35-23, now goes to the state House. If approved there, the legislation would bring the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute, to which Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has already awarded $15 million in grants, under state law.

Supporters of the research say that embryonic stem cell studies could yield new treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, the Associated Press reported. Opponents say the research needlessly destroys human embryos, and some state senators argued the money would be better spent balancing Illinois' already strained budget.


Girl Scout Cookies Dump Most Trans Fats

This year's supply of Girl Scout cookies will come nearly free of trans fats, as the organization's bakers join cities, restaurants and fast-food outlets across the United States who have already made the switch to more healthy ingredients.

Marking their 90th year in the cookie business, the Scouts will also offer a sugar-free cookie called the Little Brownie. Another cookie, the Cartwheel, was introduced last year with reduced saturated fat, the Associated Press reported Friday. Every variety of Girl Scout cookie now meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, based on serving sizes that range from four Thin Mints to two Samoas or Caramel deLites, the AP reported.

Denise J. Pessich, vice president of Girl Scouts of the USA, told the wire service that the switch was made only after the two commercial bakeries that make the treats found alternatives that didn't compromise the flavor, texture or shelf life of the cookies. The cookies, in fact, still contain a small amount of trans fat -- less than half a gram per serving -- but that's low enough to qualify for a "zero grams of trans fat" label under FDA rules. Pessich added that consumers should notice few differences.

One warning was sounded, however, by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "If it says zero grams, but contains partially hydrogenated oil, people should know it does contain a little bit of trans fat," Jacobson said. "If somebody ate several servings of those foods a day, someone could consume 2 or 3 grams of trans fat, which is significant."


MRI Dyes May Harm Kidney Patients

Certain metallic dyes injected into people for MRI scans may trigger a dangerous skin condition in those with kidney problems, the Associated Press reported Friday.

At least two dozen people who required kidney dialysis in St. Louis over a four-year period developed the rare ailment, nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, which stiffens and discolors the skin, the wire service said.

An investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded the illnesses were related to injected contrasting agents that contained gadolinium. Contrasting agents are used to improve the detailed pictures of the body's tissues taken by MRI scans.

The dyes in question have been on the market since 1988, the AP reported. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a public advisory after receiving European reports tying the rare disease to kidney patients who had had MRI scans using the contrasting agents.

CDC officials told the wire service that they believe dialysis patients and others with kidney problems can't properly rid the contrasting agents from their bodies.

"To the general public, it's not a big concern. But to somebody with kidney disease, we want to warn them not to get an MRI with [this type of] contrasting agent," CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone told the AP.


Top Milk Producer Sours on Cloned Cows

Dean Foods, the largest milk-producing company in the United States, has turned thumbs down on using milk from cloned cows.

Despite federal government assertions that meat and milk products from cloned cows are safe and virtually indistinguishable from other dairy products, Dean cited surveys that said Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of drinking clone-produced milk.

Dean, based in Dallas, is a $10 billion company whose brands include Land O'Lakes and Horizon Organic, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given preliminary approval to using meat and milk products from cloned cows, and final approval is possible by the end of the year, the wire service said.

Some 64 percent of Americans surveyed in a September poll said they were uncomfortable with the idea of drinking or eating products from cloned cows, the AP reported.


U.S. Experts Deny Problems With HPV Vaccine

Although there are more than 500 cases of mostly minor side effects involving a vaccine that could prevent cervical cancer in girls and women, U.S. health officials say there's no need for additional warning labels on the vaccine, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

The report preceded a meeting in Atlanta Thursday, at which experts were to present side-effects data on the vaccine, Gardasil, to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many of the side-effect reports involve fainting, but fainting is a common side effect among teens who get any vaccination, experts told the wire service. "There is absolutely no reason to think that there is anything in this vaccine, as opposed to another vaccine, that's going to make people more likely to faint," CDC immunization safety official Dr. John Iskander told the AP.

Gardasil is Merck & Co.'s three-dose vaccine approved for females aged 9 to 26. It protects against strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that have been shown to cause cancer of the cervix.

On Wednesday, a Virginia-based group called the National Vaccine Information Center issued a statement describing side effects of the vaccine. The statement also argued that not enough research had been done on the vaccine to prove that it was safe.

The AP said it had obtained data showing 542 reports of adverse side effects of the vaccine, ranging from fainting and injection site swelling, to fever and nausea. There also have been three reports of Guillian-Barre syndrome, a debilitating condition that has been associated with other vaccines, the wire service said.

Earlier this week, Merck said it would end a campaign to persuade states to require the vaccine for adolescent girls attending public school, the AP said.


Britain to Pay Women for Eggs Donated to Research

Britain approved a plan Thursday to pay women to donate eggs for stem cell and cloning research, a move scientists say would improve the supply but civil rights groups worry will exploit the poor.

Under the plan, women undergoing expensive fertility treatments would be given discounts for donated eggs. Others would receive up to 250 pounds (about $500 U.S.) for each fertilization cycle to cover travel costs or lost work time.

The donated eggs would be used to create cloned embryos from which to extract stem cells for research into curing diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The United States and some other countries already allow human egg donations for research, but the U.S. has no national policy on payment. Some states, however, do reimburse women for costs, the Associated Press reported.

Not everyone is happy with the plan, however. Dr. Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Laboratory at King's College, London, told the AP, "It's exploitative, because there will be women attracted even by the thought of getting 250 pounds from this. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of selling tissue and body parts."

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