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Health Highlights: July 22, 2006

Scientists Identify Ovarian Stem Cells That May Cause CancerFDA Tells 'Soft' Lunch Box Makers to Get the Lead Out HHS Chief's Foundation Got Tax Breaks, Gave Little to Charity: Report Senators Peck at U.S. Bird Flu Testing Program More U.S. Doctors Using Electronic Medical Records Study Finds High Lead Levels in Paints

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

Scientists Identify Ovarian Stem Cells That May Cause Cancer

Once it has progressed beyond its early stage, ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult malignancies to treat. But Massachusetts General Hospital researchers report in the July 25 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that discovery of stem-like ovarian cells may help develop more effective chemotherapy.

"We feel these stem-like cancer cells may be resistant to traditional chemotherapy and could be responsible for the ultimately fatal drug-resistant recurrence that is characteristic of ovarian cancer," Dr. Paul Szotek, first author of the research, says in a Massachusetts General Hospital news release. About 16,000 women in the United States die from ovarian cancer every year. The cancer is hard to detect in its early stages and is very resistant to chemotherapy.

Laboratory mice were used in experiments that allowed scientists to detect the stem cells that might be cancer precursors. The cells were resistant to a traditional ovarian cancer drug, researchers said, but they did respond to an especially prepared protein, and this has given hope that new treatment possibilities exist for ovarian cancer.

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FDA Tells 'Soft' Lunch Box Makers to Get the Lead Out

In issuing a warning to lunch box manufacturers to find a new way to make one of their products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also said that government testing found no immediate danger in many of the current "soft" lunch boxes, which are lined with a vinyl containing lead.

The Associated Press reports that the FDA reviewed test results from the government's Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and found no incidents of lead -- which, if ingested by small children, can cause learning disabilities -- leaking from the vinyl. Nevertheless, the FDA said, there was no reason to use lead in manufacturing vinyl for lunch boxes.

The wire service reports that Mitchell Cheeseman, associate director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, said his agency believes lead is one of the properties used in making the vinyl because it helps create softness and flexibility.

And the A.P. quotes CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis as saying tests indicated the lunch boxes were safe for children to handle. They would have to rub the lunch box and then lick their hands more than 600 times a day for 15 to 30 days in order to be exposed to a dangerous amount of lead, Davis told the wire service.

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HHS Chief's Foundation Got Tax Breaks, Gave Little to Charity: Report

A charitable foundation set up by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and his relatives enabled them to claim millions of dollars in tax deductions while providing little to charity, The Washington Post reported Friday.

The foundation was set up in 2000 with almost $9 million from Leavitt family assets. Much of that money went into investments or loans to the family's business interests and real estate holdings.

Less than 1 percent of the Leavitt Foundation's assets were donated to charity in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Post reported. And since 2000, Mike Leavitt alone has claimed about $1.2 million in tax write-offs.

"They're basically sitting on all this money, getting a charitable write-off and doing nothing with it," said Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

The Post had asked Cohen to review the Leavitt Foundation's records and tax returns.

Christina Pearson, an HHS spokeswoman, said the foundation's activities are 'totally legal and proper.'

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Senators Peck at U.S. Bird Flu Testing Program

The voluntary nature of the U.S. Agriculture Department's bird flu testing program threatens the U.S. poultry industry, a group of U.S. Senators (five Democrats and one Republican) wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

The letter cited a federal audit that found that the U.S. government does not have a comprehensive plan for bird flu testing and monitoring in the commercial poultry industry, the Associated Press reported. A plan will be in place by October, says the Agriculture Department.

"It is surprising that USDA does not have a program that monitors and collects data on what testing is taking place," the senators wrote in the letter. "We are deeply concerned that the agency has waited until this year to begin to develop a comprehensive surveillance plan for avian influenza, which will not be complete until October."

They contend that USDA is relying too heavily on states and noted that many states don't have enough staff help to coordinate a bird flu surveillance program, the AP reported.

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More U.S. Doctors Using Electronic Medical Records

In 2005, 23.9 percent of office-based American doctors were using partial or full electronic medical records (EMRs), an increase of 31 percent from the number of doctors using them in 2001, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The survey of about 1,900 doctors found that those in the Midwest (26.9 percent) and West (33.4 percent) were more likely to use EMRs than those in the Northeast (14.4 percent).

Doctors in metropolitan areas (24.8 percent) were more likely to use EMRs than those in non-metropolitan areas (16.9 percent).

Solo practitioners -- who account for a third of doctors but for two-thirds of medical practices -- were least likely to used EMRs.

Despite increased use, the report noted that only 9.3 percent of doctors used EMRs with all four of the basic functions considered necessary for a complete EMR system. The four functions are: computerized orders for prescriptions, computerized orders for tests, reporting of test results, and physician notes).

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Study Finds High Lead Levels in Paints

Some paints used in China, India and Malaysia have lead levels that are much higher than the legal limit in the United States and pose a serious health hazard to children, says a University of Cincinnati study in the September issue of the journal Environmental Research.

These dangerously-high lead levels pose a threat to children around the world because the paints may be used on products that are shipped to other countries. Lead can cause brain damage and other health problems in children.

The researchers sampled 80 paints in four countries. They found that about 50 percent of paint sold in China, India and Malaysia had lead levels 30 times greater than the U.S. limit of 600 parts per million, and some of the paints had levels as much as 300 times the U.S. limit, Agence France Presse reported.

About 10 percent of paint sold in Singapore had lead levels higher than the U.S. limit.

Previous research found high lead levels in paint sold in Indonesia, Peru and the Seychelles.

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