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Health Highlights: Feb. 7, 2002

Computer Detects Ovarian Cancer Early Stroke Drug May Have Potential After All, Research Shows Nuclear Fallout Causes Genetic Mutations, But They're Probably Harmless: Study New Birth Control Pills Don't Lower Stroke Risk EPA Report Cites Lack of Sewage Monitoring 100,000 Will Suffer Stress From Sept. 11: TV Report

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

Computer Detects Ovarian Cancer Early

A computer program that looks for distinctive patterns of proteins in blood appears to be a promising new screening tool for early detection of ovarian cancer, HealthDay reports.

In its first test, the computer analysis of "proteomic patterns" was 100 percent accurate in detecting ovarian cancer and 95 percent accurate in determining that women with other diseases did not have cancer of the ovaries, says a report in the Feb. 16 issue of The Lancet.

Such a test -- particularly a noninvasive one -- would be welcome, experts say. Because it doesn't display early symptoms and because the ovaries are deep within the body, ovarian cancer is often caught only in its late stages, when the five-year survival rate is only about 35 percent.

The journal report indicates that the proteomic test is better than existing tools, says Robert Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society.

The new test does offer "markers that have better performance than those we have now," Smith adds. Testing is advisable for women at high risk of ovarian cancer, either because there is a family history of the malignancy or because they have had breast cancer. One BRCA gene is known to be associated with both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, Smith notes.

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Stroke Drug May Have Potential After All, Research Shows

A number of unsuccessful studies may have discarded the potentially significant benefits of at least one drug designed to protect the brains of stroke victims, the Associated Press.

The drug citicoline is among a family of experimental drugs called neuroprotective drugs that are designed to prevent the chemical chain reaction that occurs in the brain in the days following a stroke, causing more damage.

Researchers with Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center fault previous studies of citicoline for such reasons as the drug being given to patients too long after their stroke and patients' symptoms used as the only evidence of the drug's benefits.

But the use of MRI scans that can reveal brain chemical activity allowed the researchers to see that patients receiving high doses of citicoline had strokes that grew only 2 percent in the weeks following the initial stroke event, whereas strokes in patients on a placebo increased by 85 percent.

Frther research has shown that 55 percent of stroke patients taking citicoline died, compared with 66 percent of patients receiving placebos.

The new research was presented today at a meeting of the American Stroke Association in San Antonio.

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Nuclear Fallout Does Cause Genetic Mutations, But They're Probably Harmless, Says Study

First, the bad news: low-doses of radioactive fallout from atomic bombs can indeed cause genetic mutations in families of those in close vicinity to the fallout. But the somewhat good news, researchers say, is that no health consequences have been documented from the DNA changes.

The findings are from a group of European researchers who took blood samples from 40 families who lived near a site where the former Soviet Union conducted atomic bomb testing, reports the Associated Press.

When compared with another group of families from the same region that was not exposed to the radiation, those who had been exposed showed a mutation rate that was about 80 percent higher than in the corresponding generation in the control group.

But the researchers said all of the genetic mutations that were found were considered to be what is known as "junk DNA," which has no known function and cause no known ill effects.

The research appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

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New Birth Control Pills Don't Lower Stroke Risk

Despite lower levels of estrogen, the new generations of birth control pills double the risk of stroke for women who take them, HealthDay reports.

In the first look at the risk of ischemic strokes from the latest generation of oral contraceptives, Dutch researchers say the newest pills are no safer than the older versions when it comes to clotting problems. In fact, they argue, the third-generation pills may be more dangerous than the second-generation ones.

A team led by Jeanet M. Kemmeren, an epidemiologist at University Medical Center in Utrecht, looked for a link between oral contraceptives and ischemic strokes in nearly 1,130 women, aged 18 to 49, of whom 203 had suffered one such attack.

Women who reported using any oral birth control had a 2.3-times higher risk of stroke than those who never took the pill did, the scientists say. The risk with first-generation pills rose 1.7 times, compared with 2.4 and 2.2 times for the second- and third-generation incarnations, respectively.

As expected, smoking and high blood pressure aggravated the risk of ischemic stroke, say the researchers, who presented their findings today at the American Stroke Association's meeting in San Antonio.

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EPA Report Cites Lack of Sewage Monitoring

Each year, 4 million tons of wastewater sewage is recycled and used as fertilizer on American farms and other rural properties. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a report by its own inspector general, is cited for not doing enough to monitor the sludge for potential health hazards, the Associated Press reports.

Viruses, bacteria and toxins are making their way into the fertilizer, and the EPA's own investigation says the agency lacks the money, staff and oversight to do anything about it. The EPA has asked prominent scientists at the National Research Council to investigate the potential health concerns, the AP says.

The EPA sanctioned the practice a decade ago, and it requires owners of treated fields to restrict access to people until the fertilizer has a chance to degrade. But all of the bugs don't die, the agency report acknowledges. Harmful substances that remain could include salmonella, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis and tapeworms, reports the AP.

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100,000 Will Suffer Stress From Sept. 11: TV Report

In what it's calling a "second wave" of casualties from September 11, the CBS News program "60 Minutes II" says at least 100,000 people in New York City alone will suffer serious stress-related problems, including flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, rage and depression.

The broadcast report quotes Dr. Robert Grossman, a psychiatrist at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who says the part of victims' brains that warns them of danger is constantly generating false alarms, when in fact there is no immediate real danger.

The report cites an entire company office that was evacuated after an electric generator backfired.

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