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Health Highlights: March 26, 2003

Fresh-Squeezed O.J. No Healthier Than Commercial Brands Red-headed Women Respond Better to Painkillers People With Heart Problems Shouldn't Get Smallpox Shot Bone Loss Linked to Lead in Blood, Hypertension Gene Therapy Reduces Alzheimer's Protein United States Unprepared for Botulinum Toxin Attack

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

Fresh-Squeezed O.J. No Healthier Than Commercial Brands

The belief that freshly squeezed orange juice is better for you may be nothing more than pulp fiction.

Spanish scientists from Ciudad University in Madrid did laboratory analyses of freshly squeezed and commercial pasteurized orange juices, BBC News Online reports.

They found no significant differences between the two kinds of juices in their levels of vitamin C and two other antioxidants, flavonoids and carotenoids. Antioxidants are believed to protect cells from damage caused by molecules called free radicals.

"The study demonstrates that all juices have the same nutritional and health-related characteristics," study lead author Dr. Pilar Cano told the BBC.

The findings appear in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

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Red-headed Women Respond Better to Painkillers

Blondes may have more fun but redheads respond better to painkillers.

A gene associated with red hair and fair skin seems to help red-headed women get more benefit from painkiller medications than other women and men, says a study by researchers at McGill University in Montreal.

Previous research uncovered a female-specific pain pathway in the brain. Painkillers that target that pathway, called kappa-opioid receptors, work only in women, United Press International reports.

The McGill scientists used a special technique to identify the candidate gene, Mc1r, that's responsible for this difference between men and women. Then they tested a kappa painkiller on men and women with several Mc1r variations responsible for different hair colors and skin types.

Those genetic variations didn't affect painkiller response in men, but did cause a heightened response in red-headed/fair-skinned women.

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People With Heart Problems Shouldn't Get Smallpox Shot

People with existing heart conditions should avoid the risky smallpox vaccine until the U.S. government probes a possible link between the vaccine and serious heart problems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The CDC issued the warning Tuesday following the death of a Maryland health-care worker and the sickening of six others soon after receiving their inoculations. Of those seven victims, three have suffered heart attacks and two have reported severe chest pain symptomatic of angina.

In a prepared statement, the agency says people who have suffered a previous heart attack, have a history of angina or other forms of coronary artery disease should avoid the smallpox shot until further notice. Up to now, heart problems have not been recognized as a prominent side effect of the vaccine.

The CDC warning comes on the heels of a research letter published in the March 26 Journal of the American Medical Association that concludes that many more hospital patients than previously thought may be at risk of getting smallpox from health-care workers who have recently been vaccinated.

A survey of New York state hospitals found that at any one point in time, more than half of inpatients have one or more conditions that could put them at increased risk for secondary transmission of the virus, reports HealthDay.

The live vaccina virus is present at the vaccination site for up to three weeks after inoculation and can be transmitted to other parts of the body or to other individuals via direct contact.

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Bone Loss Linked to Lead in Blood, Hypertension

Menopausal bone loss can lead to elevated levels of lead in the blood, which could increase a woman's risk of high blood pressure, newly published research finds.

The onset of osteoporosis appears to release lead that's been stored in the thinning bones, in some cases from exposure decades earlier, report researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, co-sponsors of the study.

Lead exposure from paint, water, air pollution and other environmental causes can result in lead poisoning. The metal ultimately accumulates in the bones, without necessarily causing harm. But once the lead seeps into the blood stream, it's more likely to cause serious damage, reports the Associated Press.

Even when lead levels in study participants' blood were below the government's "at-risk" threshold of 10 micrograms per deciliter, lead in the blood appeared to have a damaging effect, the researchers conclude. They studied 2,165 women, ages 40 to 49, who participated in a national health survey conducted from 1988 to 1994. The study results appear in the March 26 Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Gene Therapy Reduces Alzheimer's Protein

A molecule that naturally degrades a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease has been shown to reduce levels of the protein by almost 50 percent when delivered by gene therapy, researchers at the Salk Institute say.

The harmful protein, beta-amyloid, exists in normal brains at far lower levels than are seen in Alzheimer's patients. Though its function is unclear, scientists think the protein is involved in transporting molecules between nerve endings. Beta-amyloid, however, also makes up the plaques that have been shown to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

In lab tests on animals, a transferred gene called neprilysin reduced the amount of beta-amyloid by nearly half and appeared to eliminate the degeneration caused by the plaque buildups, the institute says in a prepared statement. The scientists continue to study whether the gene therapy reverses some of the dementia and other severe symptoms of the debilitating disease.

The Salk study was conducted in collaboration with scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Kentucky. The findings appear in the Journal of Neuroscience..

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United States Unprepared for Botulinum Toxin Attack

Federal experts say the United States isn't prepared to deal with a bioterrorism attack using botulinum toxin.

The government has only enough antitoxin -- about 1,000 doses -- to cope with a small-scale attack using botulinum toxin, the Associated Press reports.

But federal officials say the issue is a top priority and they're assembling all available resources to deal with it.

The toxin easily poisons anyone who eats it, and experts fear that bioterrorists could use it in an attempt to infect the nation's food supply. Just one gram of botulinum toxin could kill as many as one million people, the AP reports.

Basic microbiology skills are all that's needed to disseminate the toxin, which is found in soil.

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