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Health Highlights: Sept. 25, 2007

Germs Become More Lethal After Space Travel Genes Predict Breast Cancer Cell Response to Chemo No Evidence That Magnets Ease Pain U.S. Hits Illegal Steroid Labs Employer, Worker Health Costs Continue to Rise Study Questions Value of Annual Physical Exams

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

Germs Become More Lethal After Space Travel

After they were sent into space, germs that cause food poisoning returned to Earth stronger and more lethal, according to a U.S. study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For this experiment, researchers sent salmonella into orbit aboard a space shuttle. After the germs had been returned to Earth, they were given to mice. The mice that received the space germs were three times more likely to get sick and died quicker than mice given an identical strain of Earth-bound salmonella, the Associated Press reported.

After 25 days, 10 percent of the mice given the space germs were still alive, compared with 40 percent of mice given conventional salmonella.

When they analyzed the salmonella that went to space, the researchers found that there had been changes in 167 genes. The researchers said the germs sensed the new space environment and made the genetic changes in order to survive, the AP reported.


Genes Predict Breast Cancer Cell Response to Chemo

Two genes can identify which breast cancer cells will respond to the common chemotherapy drug docetaxel, says a team at Aberdeen University in Scotland.

The research, conducted using breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory, may help in efforts to develop more personalized treatments for breast cancer, BBC News reported. The findings were presented at the European Cancer Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

While docetaxel is one of the most effective treatments for breast cancer, it doesn't work in all patients.

"For the first time we have found two genes that identify which breast cancer cells respond to chemotherapy and which do not respond," said Dr. Andy Schofield, a senior lecturer at Aberdeen University. "We hope that in the future this will mean that before we treat patients with breast cancer with docetaxel, we can predict whether the drug will work or not, using a very simple test."

The researchers now plan to study whether these genes behave the same way in patients, BBC News reported.


No Evidence That Magnets Ease Pain

There is no definitive scientific evidence that magnets help relieve chronic pain, say U.K. researchers who reviewed nine previous studies that compared products with magnets to those with no magnets or very weak ones, CBC News reported.

"There is no definite grounds of being absolutely sure that a magnet works or not," said lead author Dr. Max Pittler, a complementary medicine specialist. "The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment."

The review was published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Proponents of magnet therapy -- a huge, lucrative market -- say that a magnetic field increases blood flow, which leads to increased delivery of oxygen, nutrients, hormones and painkilling endorphins to tissues in the affected area, CBC News reported.

But Pittler said it would be better for people with pain to use an over-the-counter painkiller such as acetaminophen or ASA or to try a complementary medicine therapy such as acupuncture.


U.S. Hits Illegal Steroid Labs

More than 120 people were arrested and dozens of labs that made growth hormone for sale on the black market were raided as U.S. authorities conducted the largest-ever crackdown on illegal steroids, the Associated Press reported.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said Monday that agents seized 56 labs and confiscated 11.4 million doses of steroids. The 18-month Operation Raw Deal also involved a number of other federal agencies, including the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Nine other countries -- including Canada, China, and Mexico -- also took part in the investigation.

U.S. officials said high school athletes, body builders, and ordinary people who just want to improve their appearance were likely among the labs' customers, the AP reported.

"We were a little bit stunned at the amount of labs we found as a result of this investigation," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said Monday. "It's not something that's on a scale that we've ever seen."


Employer, Worker Health Costs Continue to Rise

In 2007, employer health premiums for workers increased by more than twice the rate of inflation, according to a study released Monday by the global human resources company Hewitt Associates.

On average, employers paid 5.3 percent more to provide health coverage for their workers in 2007, which was the smallest increase in nine years, the study said. In 2006, there was a 7.9 percent increase, the Wall Street Journal reported.

While there was a smaller increase in 2007, the Hewitt study predicted that premiums for employer-provided health coverage will increase an average of 8.7 percent in 2008. That would increase the average annual premium per employee to $8,676, from $7,982 this year.

In recent years, employers used funds carried over from previous years' budgets to cushion health premium increases. But "that surplus is now gone," said Bob Tate, chief actuary in Hewitt's Health Management Consulting business, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The study also predicted that in 2008 workers are likely to pay an average of $3,597 in out-of-pocket expenses, through co-payments, annual deductibles, and co-insurance. That's an increase of 10.1 percent or more from this year.


Study Questions Value of Annual Physical Exams

For healthy American adults, the benefits of an annual physical exam may not justify the cost, according to a study in the current issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

"A lot of doctors don't think physical exams are very helpful," said author Ateev Mehrotra, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The study found that 80 percent of preventive care occurs during other kinds of patient visits to doctors, such as a complaint about a minor ailment, said US News and World Report.

"The annual physical is not necessary," said Rick Kellerman, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He said people don't need to be concerned if they miss an annual physical, or several, as long as they have their doctor's approval and remain in close communication with their doctor.

However, a 2005 survey of 800 primary care physicians in Boston, Denver and San Diego found that 65 percent of them believed that an annual physical was a necessity, said US News and World Report. The survey also found that 74 percent of the doctors said annual exams improved early detection of illness, and 94 percent believed they improved patient-doctor relationships.


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