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Health Highlights: Oct. 30, 2006

Little Progress in Eradicating World Hunger: UN Blood Test May Spot Early Alzheimer's Portable Light Therapy May Fight Skin Cancer KFC to Stop Using Trans Fat-Laden Cooking Oil Gene Variant Linked to Schizophrenia Molecule Stops Sperm Development

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

Little Progress in Eradicating World Hunger: UN

Despite increased wealth, the world has made "virtually no progress" in eradicating hunger since the 1996 World Food Summit set a target date of 2015 to halve world hunger from 1990-92 levels, according to a report released Monday by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"Ten years later, we are confronted with the sad reality that virtually no progress has been made towards that objective," FAO chief Jacques Diouf said in the report, "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006."

It said that, as of 2001-03, 854 million people were undernourished. Most of them -- about 820 million -- were in developing countries, Agence France Presse reported.

The FAO report found that 26 million more people were malnourished between 1995-97 and 2001-03 and that this trend was cause for concern. It noted that the number of malnourished people decreased by 100 million in the 1980s.

"The world is richer today than it was 10 years ago. There is more food available ... What is lacking is sufficient political will to mobilize ... resources to the benefit of the hungry," Diouf noted.

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Blood Test May Spot Early Alzheimer's

A blood test may be able to detect signs of Alzheimer's disease before patients show any actual symptoms, say scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London in the U.K.

In a study that compared 500 Alzheimer's patients with a group of healthy older people, the researchers found that the Alzheimer's patients had higher levels of two certain types of proteins in their blood, BBC News reported.

"We found some evidence that there are protein differences in the blood of people with Alzheimer's," said study leader Professor Simon Lovestone. "This raises the prospect of a blood test for Alzheimer's disease."

The findings were published in the journal Brain.

Being able to diagnose Alzheimer's disease at an early stage would mean that treatments could begin much sooner, BBC News reported.

"As new treatments that target the early stages of Alzheimer's disease are developed, it is very important that we find a way of diagnosing the disease as early as possible," said Professor Clive Ballard of the Alzheimer's Society in the U.K. "A blood test could help people receive treatments before symptoms develop, allowing doctors to give patients treatments that can help stabilize a person's condition much earlier," he noted.

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Portable Light Therapy May Fight Skin Cancer

A portable "patch" for treating common skin cancers has been developed by researchers in Scotland.

The light-emitting "sticking plaster" is powered by a small battery pack and may make it possible to treat skin cancer patients in their family doctor's office or even at home or work, reported The Herald in the U.K.

This new portable method is an adaptation of photodynamic therapy (PDT), which requires patients to lie still for several hours under large, intense light sources that activate special anti-cancer creams applied to the skin. PDT is performed in a hospital.

"By adapting the latest technology to an existing treatment method, we have developed a compact light source for treating common skin cancers," said Professor Ifor Samuel, a physicist at St. Andrews University. "It can be worn by the patient in a similar way to a sticking plaster (adhesive bandage), while the battery is carried like an iPod."

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KFC to Stop Using Trans Fat-Laden Cooking Oil

Fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken announced Monday that as of April 2007 it will no longer use trans fat-laden hydrogenated soybean oils to cook chicken and other food products at all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants. Instead, the restaurant chain will use healthier low linolenic soybean oil, the Associated Press reported.

"We've tested a wide variety of oils available and we're pleased we have found a way to keep our chicken finger lickin' good -- but with zero grams of trans fat," KFC President Gregg Dedrick told the AP. He said most chicken products would move over to the safer oil, although certain other items, such as biscuits, will still use trans fats while KFC looks for other alternatives.

KFC was recently sued over high levels of trans fats in its foods. Trans fats are considered so harmful that the American Heart Association recommends eating less than 2 grams per day. Currently, just one KFC extra crispy chicken breast contains 4.5 grams of trans fat.

The Wendy's restaurant chain has already switched to trans fat-free cooking oil. McDonalds made the same promise years ago, but has not yet followed through on that pledge, AP reported.

The KFC announcement comes on the same day that the New York City Board of Health holds its first public meeting on a proposal to forbid restaurants from serving food that contains artificial trans fats, the AP reported.

If it goes ahead, it would be the first such ban in the U.S.

New York City health officials say trans fats -- which significantly boost levels of so-called "bad" cholesterol -- are so unhealthy that food that contains them belong in the same category as food spoiled by rodent droppings, the AP reported.

"This is something that we'd like to dismiss from our food supply," Dr. Robert H. Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association, told AP.

Trans fats contribute to about 30,000 U.S. deaths a year, according to Harvard Public School of Health researchers.

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Gene Variant Linked to Schizophrenia

People with a variant of a gene called neuregulin are more likely to develop symptoms of schizophrenia, say researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K.

The study included 200 young people, ages 16 to 25, who were at high risk for schizophrenia but did not have any symptoms at the start of the study. All the participants had two or more relatives with the condition, which is known to run in families, BBC News reported.

The volunteers were tracked for 10 years. Those with the variant of the neuregulin gene were much more likely to develop symptoms of schizophrenia -- such as paranoia or hearing voices -- during the study.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, may help in the development of new treatments for schizophrenia, the researchers said.

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Molecule Stops Sperm Development

American and Italian scientists are working on a male contraceptive that stops the development process of sperm.

They tested a recently developed molecule called Adjudin in male rats and found that it blocked connections to Sertoli cells which "nurture" developing sperm, making the rodents infertile, BBC News reported.

This effect was achieved using relatively low doses of the molecule. There were no obvious side effects and the infertility was reversible, the researchers said. Their findings appear in the journal Nature Medicine.

When sperm are developing, they sit next to Sertoli cells, which nurse sperm cells and help them grow. If the connection between sperm cells and Sertoli cells is broken, it causes infertility.

The scientists said more research is needed in order to determine if the molecule is equally effective and safe in men, BBC News reported.

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