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Health Highlights: July 23, 2006

Heart Drug May Help to Reduce Stress in Ovarian Cancer PatientsTeenager Ordered to Resume Cancer TreatmentScientists 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

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

Heart Drug May Help to Reduce Stress in Ovarian Cancer Patients

The bad news: Chronic stress may cause malignant ovarian tumors to grow faster.

The good news: A heart disease drug may be able to block that growth.

Researchers from the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston report in the latest issue of the journal Nature Medicine that their research on laboratory mice indicates there is a relationship between "psychological stress and the biological processes that make ovarian tumors grow and spread."

The scientists placed mice with ovarian cancer in a confined space. This situation caused an increase in tumor growth, according to senior author Dr. Anil Sood, M. D. Anderson's director of ovarian cancer research. But when the mice were given the heart drug propranolol -- which belongs in a category known as beta blockers -- the stress hormones that were causing the tumor growth were impaired.

"Beta blockers have been shown to be protective against cardiac disease," Sood says in the news release. "No one has studied their effect on chronic stress as it relates to cancer in humans."


Teenager Ordered to Resume Cancer Treatment

A 16-year-old Virginia boy suffering from a type of lymph gland cancer known as Hodgkin's disease has been ordered to resume treatment under a doctor's directions, the Associated Press reports.

The ongoing legal battle between the state of Virginia and the family of Starchild Abraham Cherrix resulted in this latest ruling, the family attorney told the wire service.

The disagreement began when Abraham stopped his chemotherapy after three months, the A.P. reports. It made him nauseated and weak, according to the family's lawyer John Stepanovich. The teenager's parents, Jay and Rose Cherrix, allowed him to find an alternative organic diet and herbal supplements from Mexico to treat the disease.

The state of Virginia intervened, and juvenile court judge Jesse E. Demps ordered the boy to report to a hospital by July 25 for treatment under a doctor's direction.

"Look out, because Social Services may be pounding on your door next when they disagree with the decision you've made about the health care of your child," the wire service quotes Stepanovich as saying.


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.


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.


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.'


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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