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Health Highlights: April 28, 2004

Microscopic Computer May Help Fight Cancer Obese Children Have Dangerously Thick Arteries Most Children Drown While Under Supervision China IDs Another Suspected SARS Case FDA Warns of Irritable Bowel Drug's Risks Cancer Prevention Report Shows Mixed Results Protein Helps Some Cancer Cells Survive Chemotherapy

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

Microscopic Computer May Help Fight Cancer

A microscopic DNA "computer" that could someday be used to detect and treat cancer and other diseases from inside the body has been developed by Israeli scientists.

In test tube experiments, this computer showed promising results in detecting chemical markers of lung and prostate cancer, the Associated Press reported.

However, much more work is needed before the computer can work within the complex chemical environment inside the human body, the researchers said

The computer, made from a liquid mixture of synthetic DNA and enzymes, is designed to detect chemical signs of cancer and release drugs in response.

The device is described in a study published online by the journal Nature.

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Obese Children Have Dangerously Thick Arteries

The arteries of some obese children as young as 10 years old are thick like the arteries of adults who are heavy smokers, says a study in the May issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

Doctors from Australia and Hong Kong used ultrasound to examine the children's arteries. The children with the thickened arteries are at risk for heart attack or stroke much earlier in life than normal -- in their 40s and 50s, instead of their 70s and 80s, according to the researchers.

The study offered some hopeful news, however. It found that the children's blood vessels returned to normal after a year of eating a healthy low-fat diet and doing sustained exercise, the Associated Press reported.

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Most Children Drown While Under Supervision

Nine out of 10 children who drowned in the United States in 2000 and 2001 were being supervised by another person, usually a family member, according to a new report released by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign.

The finding showed that children need better quality supervision while they're swimming. The report also found that many pools are not properly fenced and that many adults don't require use of personal flotation devices and aren't teaching their children to swim.

The survey of parents revealed that 55 percent said they're "not at all worried" or "not very worried" about their child drowning. But drowning claims the lives of more than 900 children each year and is the second-leading injury-related cause of death among children ages 1 to 14, the report noted.

"Adults need to actively supervise children around water. This means watching and listening at all times and staying close enough to intervene in an emergency," Dr. Martin Eichelberger, CEO of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, said in a prepared statement.

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China IDs Another Suspected SARS Case

China, struggling to contain the latest mini outbreak of SARS, has identified a seventh suspected case in addition to the two already confirmed, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

A World Health Organization spokesman praised the government's response to the outbreak, noting it "appears to be under control."

The WHO is investigating the source of all nine confirmed and possible infections, which appear to have stemmed from two government SARS lab workers in Beijing who became ill last month. About 1,000 people are now being quarantined in the capital city and in Anhui province, where relatives of one of the first infected lab workers live.

"China is pretty much on red alert," WHO spokesman Bob Dietz told the wire service. But "there's no significant public health threat from SARS in China," he added.

In the world's original SARS outbreak that began in late 2002, the virus killed 349 people in China and claimed 774 lives around the world, the AP said.

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FDA Warns of Irritable Bowel Drug's Risks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered new labeling requirements for the irritable bowel drug Zelnorm (tegaserod maleate), noting that it could cause serious diarrhea or reduced blood flow to the intestines (ischemia) in some users.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), affecting mostly women, is characterized by symptoms including cramping, bloating, and gas. Zelnorm is often prescribed for people who have an additional side effect, constipation. But the agency warned that some cases of medication-induced diarrhea have led to hospitalization for dehydration.

The new label warnings also say Zelnorm users who develop symptoms of ischemic colitis -- such as rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea or worsening abdominal pain -- should discontinue the drug immediately and see a doctor.

The agency said the risks to the average Zelnorm user are probably low, because pre-approval testing of the Novartis drug on more than 7,000 people did not reveal these possible side effects.

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Cancer Prevention Report Shows Mixed Results

Americans are smoking less, but not enough people are being screened for certain cancers, the American Cancer Society says in a new report.

Among the annual prevention report's findings:

  • Tobacco smoking among teens has fallen since 1997, but 28.5 percent of high school students said they still had smoked at least one cigarette within the prior 30 days. Overall 25.2 percent of men and 20.7 percent of women still smoked cigarettes.
  • 22 more municipalities went smoke-free in 2003, bringing the total to more than 1,600 smoking-restricted areas nationwide.
  • In 2002, 58.8 percent of adults were overweight, including 21.9 percent who were obese. Obesity increases a person's risk of developing at least 11 types of cancer, the society said.
  • Members of some groups at risk of cancer aren't being screened frequently enough -- including those who lack health insurance, those with less than a high school education, and those who are recent immigrants. And the general population is least likely to be screened for colon cancer, the report said.

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Protein Helps Some Cancer Cells Survive Chemotherapy

Some cancer cells avoid being killed by chemotherapy by putting their growth on hold, says a study by Cancer Research UK scientists.

The researchers found that a protein molecule called p300 seems to control this process, BBC News Online reported.

Blocking this protein may help increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. The discovery of the important role of p300 may also help scientists find new ways to predict which cancer patients will respond to treatment.

The study appears in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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