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Health Highlights: Jan. 9, 2007

NYC Odor Probably Originated in New Jersey Instinctive Decision-Making Better in Some Circumstances: Study Capsaicin Attacks Mitochondria of Cancer Cells Schwarzenegger Proposes Universal Health Care for Californians U.S. Stem Cell Debate to Resume in Congress Nanoparticles Block Blood Flow to Tumors

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

NYC Odor Probably Originated in New Jersey

New York City officials suspect that the mysterious odor that wafted over Manhattan on Monday originated in New Jersey.

The strong odor prompted the evacuation of some buildings, and about a dozen people were taken to hospitals complaining of difficulty breathing, but officials said the smell was not harmful.

A spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Protection told the Associated Press that the agency believes the odor originated along New Jersey's industrialized waterfront, which is located just across the Hudson River from New York City.

"The way we tracked the dispersion of the smell and the prevailing winds indicates that it came from New Jersey, somewhere near Secaucus," said spokesman Charles Sturcken.

People in Bergen and Hudson counties in New Jersey also complained about the odor. New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson told the AP that her agency is reviewing Monday's emissions records from industrial plants -- including oil refineries -- in the area where the leak may have originated.


Instinctive Decision-Making Better in Some Circumstances: Study

In certain situations, making snap decision based on your instincts may be better than taking a long time to think things over, suggests a study by British researchers at University College London.

The study included 10 volunteers who were told to look at a computer screen that contained more than 650 identical symbols. There was a single rotated version of the symbol and the volunteers were asked to determine which side of the computer screen contained the rotated symbol, BBC News reported.

When they were given a fraction of a second to look at the computer screen, the volunteers were 95 percent successful in determining the location of the rotated symbol. When they were given more than a second to look at the computer screen, they were 70 percent successful.

According to the researchers, the volunteers' instinctive decisions were more likely to be correct because their subconscious brain recognized that the rotated version of the symbol was different than all the others, BBC News reported.

On the other hand, the conscious brain identified the rotated symbol as being identical to all the others, albeit in a different orientation.

In certain situations -- such as those requiring quick reaction -- relying on your inbuilt, involuntary subconscious processes can be more effective than using your higher-level cognitive functions, the researchers noted.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.


Capsaicin Attacks Mitochondria of Cancer Cells

The way that an ingredient in jalapeno peppers kills cancer cells has been identified by researchers at Nottingham University in the U.K, BBC News reported.

The scientists found that capsaicin triggers the death of cancer cells by attacking the mitochondria, which generates energy for the cells. Healthy cells are not harmed by capsaicin. This finding suggests that it may be possible to develop new cancer drugs that target the mitochondria of cancer cells.

In this study, capsaicin was tested on human lung and pancreatic cancer cells, BBC News reported. Capsaicin belongs to a family of molecules called vanilloids.

"As these compounds attack the very heart of the tumor cells, we believe that we have in effect discovered a fundamental 'Achilles heel' for all cancers," said lead researcher Dr. Timothy Bates.

"The biochemistry of the mitochondria in cancer cells is very different from that in normal cells. This is an innate selective vulnerability of cancer cells," he noted.

The study was published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.


Schwarzenegger Proposes Universal Health Care for Californians

All California residents would have to have health insurance and all but the smallest businesses would be required to offer insurance to their workers, under a proposed plan announced Monday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

People without insurance would face tax penalties. The poorest people in the state would receive government subsidies to help them get coverage, the Associated Press reported.

Under the proposal, businesses with 10 or more workers would have to offer insurance to their employees or pay four percent of their payroll into a state fund. Businesses with less than 10 workers would be exempt.

The plan would make it illegal for insurers to deny coverage to people because of medical conditions. An expansion of the state and federal Healthy Families program would ensure that all children, regardless of their immigration status, have health insurance, the AP reported.

By cutting costs and redirecting money already in the health-care system, the plan would save $10 billion a year, Schwarzenegger said.


U.S. Stem Cell Debate to Resume in Congress

The battle between the U.S. Congress and President Bush over stem cell research is set to resume this week when the House of Representatives debates a bill that seeks to expand taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research.

A new factor in the debate will be U.S. research reported this week that suggests that stem cells can be extracted from pregnant women's amniotic fluid as well as from human embryos, the Associated Press reported.

Bush and other opponents of embryonic stem cell research say it is immoral because embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells. However, scientists aren't sure that stem cells harvested from amniotic fluid hold as much promise as embryonic stem cells for developing treatments and cures for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's.

The bill to be debated in the House would revoke Bush's 2001 ban on federal funding for deriving new stem cells from fertilized embryos. Six months ago, Bush cast the lone veto of his presidency against an identical bill, the AP reported.

It's believed the House wouldn't be able to muster the two-thirds majority vote needed to override the president's veto. However, the same bill is expected to be debated in the Senate within the next few weeks. Proponents of the bill may be able to gather enough Senate votes to challenge Bush's veto.

According to polls, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.


Nanoparticles Block Blood Flow to Tumors

U.S. scientists say they may have found a way to cut off the supply of blood and nutrients to cancer tumors, BBC News reported.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara said they used tiny nanoparticles to mimic the action of blood cells called platelets to create clots that prevented blood from reaching tumors in mice.

Blocking blood flow cuts off a tumor's supply of nutrients and oxygen. The nanoparticles used in this study were designed to bind to a protein structure found only in tumors and associated blood vessels, BBC News reported.

These kinds of nanoparticles may also be able to deliver chemotherapy drugs directory to a tumor and the surrounding area, the researchers said.

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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