Health Highlights: June 11, 2006

Two U.S. Mad Cow Cases May Be a Different StrainStudy Shows Caffeine May Block Some Pain During ExerciseSurvey: Teen Smoking Rate No Longer DecliningGenetic 'Shield' Guards Against Damaging Effects of Radiation Therapy FDA Will Track Drugs to Fight Counterfeiting Safety Group Cites Sharp Drop in Firefighter Deaths

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

Two U.S. Mad Cow Cases May Be a Different Strain

Two cases of mad cow disease in the United States have caused a stir among scientists, because they don't appear to have followed the usual pattern of development, the Associated Press reports.

The disease, discovered in Texas and Alabama, may be a different strain that appears spontaneously, the wire service quotes scientists as saying. Additionally, the dangerous lesions known as prions weren't detected to act the same way in the U.S. cattle. It is these lesions that deposit the plaque that kills brain cells, but this didn't happen with the two test animals.

There have only been a few cases of mad cow disease reported in the United States, leading government officials in late April to issue a statement that testing and control programs for the disease have been successful. This is in contrast to Europe, where thousands of cattle have been destroyed in the past 25 years.

Although the differences in the disease in the cattle have prompted scientific curiosity, the A.P. says that U.S. government officials aren't changing any procedures. "It's most important right now, till the science tells us otherwise, that we treat this as BSE regardless," the wire service quotes U.S. Agriculture Department chief veterinarian John Clifford as saying.


Study Shows Caffeine May Block Some Pain During Exercise

Can caffeine reduce the pain you feel during exercise?

It's a strong possibility, according to a small experiment from researchers at the University of Georgia, who reported their findings during the recent annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Denver.

The Los Angeles Times reports that 9 "college-age" women who weren't regular coffee drinkers participated in a leg exercise routine using their quadriceps muscles. Some of them were given a pill that contained the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee, while the others were given a placebo.

According to the Times, those who took the caffeine pills felt less pain between 25 percent and 48 percent of the time, all depending on which part of the routine they were doing.

Victor Maridakis, the University of Georgia's lead researcher, told the newspaper he believed that caffeine might block brain pain receptors. "Everyone wants that competitive edge," the Times quotes him as saying, "but it's how much you think you can handle and how your body reacts to it."


Survey: Teen Smoking Rate No Longer Declining

Discouraging news about teenage smoking came late in the week from the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The decline in smoking among teenagers, which began in the late 1990s, appears to be over.

The Associated Press reports that two surveys released Thursday and Friday indicate that about one in four teenagers is smoking, and that statistic hasn't changed since 2003.

"We were making good progress, and now it looks like we're not," the wire service quotes Dr. Corinne Husten, the CDC's acting director of the Office on Smoking and Health, as saying. The findings were based on the CDC's National Youth Risk Survey, which has been tracking 14,000 teenagers' lifestyles habits nationwide.

Between 1997 and 2003, the A.P. reported, the percentage of teenagers who said they smoked during the previous 30 days declined from 36 percent to 22 percent. But 23 percent of those surveyed in 2003 through 2005 said they had smoked a cigarette during the past 30 days.

"The fact that youth smoking rates are not declining anymore is a wake-up call," the wire service quotes Vince Willmore, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, as saying.


Genetic 'Shield' Guards Against Damaging Effects of Radiation Therapy

British researchers say they have found a way to shield healthy bone marrow cells from dangerous radiation during cancer treatments, the BBC reports.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Gene Medicine, scientists from Manchester University's Paterson Institute for Cancer Research say they have developed a genetic technique that stimulates bone marrow stem cells to make more of the protein SOD2, which acts as a shield against radiation.

While radiation therapy is very effective in killing cancer cells, it still can't be targeted specifically enough to avoid killing healthy cells as well, the BBC reports.

In the lab study, The Paterson team used a benign virus to insert a copy of the SOD2 gene into bone marrow stem cells. This, in turn, increased production of the shielding protein.

This is the first step in a procedure the scientists say they hope to develop that will lead to a pre-treatment cancer patients can take before undergoing radiation therapy.


FDA Will Track Drugs to Fight Counterfeiting

Federal regulators will begin requiring wholesalers to track who handles the pharmaceuticals they sell, to help combat a rise in counterfeit drugs entering the legitimate market.

The decision Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to take effect Dec. 2. In practice, the move could affect the distribution system for medicines, requiring distributors to provide factory-to-pharmacy documentation of the chain of custody of drug products -- its so-called "pedigree" -- throughout the distribution system.

The FDA believes that radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is the most promising way to track drugs as they move through the supply chain. However, the agency said that it will hold off requiring drug manufacturers and distributors to use the technology, until more businesses adopt the electronic track-and-trace tags, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The FDA urges U.S. consumers to purchase drugs only from state-licensed U.S. pharmacies and to be alert to changes in packaging, labeling, color, taste, pill shape or unanticipated side effects. Before buying drugs over the Internet, consumers should look for the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal on the Web site.


Safety Group Cites Sharp Drop in Firefighter Deaths

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association said Friday that 87 on-duty firefighters died in the United States in 2005, the third lowest toll since the fire-safety group began tracking deaths almost 30 years ago. Sudden cardiac deaths remained the leading cause of fatalities.

For the third straight year, the group said, firefighters were more likely to die responding to or returning from alarms and not at the scene of a fire. Of 26 deaths occurring in transit for 2005, 13 were due to sudden cardiac death and 10 were due to vehicle collisions or rollovers.

Particularly distressing, the group noted, were 11 firefighter deaths that occurred during training activities. The safety organization is conducting a special analysis of 100 training fatalities that occurred between 1996 and 2005.

Factors contributing to the drop in fatalities included decreases in deaths associated with wildland fires and the number of firefighters struck and killed by vehicles, the group said in a statement. It has compiled fatality figures for firefighters since 1977.


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