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Health Highlights: Oct. 7, 2002

Gene Gurus Share Nobel Prize Modified Plants Mop Up Arsenic Typical Lottery Player Profiled Budget Woes Hamper World TB Control Efforts Colored Discs May Reveal Rotting Frozen Food N.J. Prisoners Left in Dark About Hepatitis C Infection

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

Gene Gurus Share Nobel Prize

British and American scientists who discovered how genes regulate organ growth and how genes contribute to programmed cell suicide were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in medicine.

British researchers Sydney Brenner, 75, and John Sulston, 60, and American H. Robert Horvitz, 55, will split the prize, worth about $1 million, reports the Associated Press of today's announcement. They used tiny worms to discover which genes were responsible for killing off excess cells, a focus of a growing number of potential cancer treatments. Researchers have discovered that when it comes to cell death, the worms have a similar genetic process as do humans.

The researchers' work has helped fellow scientists understand how viruses and bacteria invade human cells, the 18-member Swedish Academy said in announcing the trio as this year's winners. In addition to cancer, the findings are likely to bolster research in combatting other diseases like AIDS, stroke and heart attack, the AP reports.

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Modified Plants Mop Up Arsenic

A genetically modified plant can live in soil rich in arsenic and actually absorb the toxic substance in its leaves and stems, University of Georgia scientists say.

Within the next five years, the plant could be used to help clean up arsenic-laden waste sites, reports United Press International. Once the plants have done their thing, they would have to be harvested, burned and have their toxic meals extracted in the process.

The modified plants are flowering Arabidopsis, from the mustard family.

Arsenic contamination is said to be a worldwide problem, notably in countries like India and Bangladesh, UPI reports. Lead researcher Richard Meagher, reporting in the journal Nature Biotechnology, says arsenic soil levels often reach 400 parts per million in some parts of India, at least 100 times more than is found in normal soil, the wire service says.

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Typical Lottery Player Profiled

Those who play the Connecticut state lottery tend to be from either inner-city neighborhoods or from small rural cornfield areas, reports the Hartford Courant. What unites these communities that seem worlds apart is that residents earn less money and are less educated than the general population, the newspaper reports.

They are also disproportionately black and Hispanic, the Courant says, in having obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, Connecticut Lottery Corp. information that until recently was kept secret.

The newspaper concluded that communities with high concentrations of winners also were where the most money on the lottery was spent. Of the 20 communities with the most lottery activity:

  • All had a median income below the state average of $53,935.
  • 17 of the 20 areas exceeded the state average of working adults who didn't finish high school.
  • An average of 30 percent of people in these areas are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to year-2000 U.S. Census figures.

Top lottery officials told the newspaper that they have never analyzed their own winner data by zip code to determine where their most active customers live.

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Budget Woes Hamper World TB Control Efforts

Unlike other diseases that plague countries worldwide, tuberculosis is one disease for which a cure has been developed, but experts say there's still face a big obstacle in treating the worst affected countries: money.

The World Health Organization says its effort to detect 70 percent of TB cases and cure 85 percent of them by 2005 faces a "funding gap" to the tune of $300 million.

WHO experts say they are hoping for extra money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but they aren't certain those funds will be available, reports the BBC.

TB is typically treated with a cocktail of antibiotics that have to be taken over a course of many months, so setting up programs to offer initial and follow-up treatment is expensive. Among the 22 countries that have the worst problems with TB are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Kenya, South Africa, and Thailand.

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Colored Discs May Reveal Rotting Frozen Food

Determining whether your frozen food has gone bad may soon be as easy as glancing at the color of a small polymer disc inside the package.

Researchers with the U.S. National Center for Toxicological Research in Arkansas developed the discs or tags, which contain organic dyes that drastically change from clear to telltale pink, blue, or yellow, reports the New Scientist.

The first discs -- expected to be launched within two years -- would react to the unpleasant odors trimethylamine, dimethylamine, and ammonia produced by rotting fish and shrimp.

Tags detecting the odors of rotting meat are likely to come next, followed by those for vegetables.

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N.J. Prisoners Left in Dark About Hepatitis C Infection

Prison officials in New Jersey failed to tell hundreds of prisoners that they were infected with the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus, and some inmates did not learn of their infection for more than a year, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The inmates reportedly were notified only after the newspaper launched its investigation, according to a medical audit.

In total, more than 1,100 prisoners have now been informed that they have the disease. Meanwhile, 21 inmates were released from prison without being told they were infected.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease that can be spread through such means as shared drug paraphernalia, sex, and possibly even blood droplets on shared toothbrushes. In about a third of those infected, the virus will clear up on its own. Among the rest, one in five will develop liver disease, but by the time a patient shows serious symptoms, it is usually too late for treatment.

And notification that they have the infection likely won't make a difference for the prisoners' treatment. New Jersey prisons currently do not treat prisoners for hepatitis C, even though some inmates die from the disease.

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