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Health Highlights: Feb. 16, 2004

Anger, Nicotine Addiction May Go Hand in Hand Concern Grows Over Lead in Computer Monitors Gene Therapy Could Produce Super Athletes Bird Flu in Asia Shows No Signs of Waning U.S. Wants to Make Painkiller Harder to Get Mouse Cloned from Nasal Cells

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

Anger, Nicotine Addiction May Go Hand in Hand

If you get angry easily, you may have a genetic profile that also makes you especially susceptible to nicotine addiction, according to researchers at the University of California at Irvine.

The scientists made the discovery while studying people who wore nicotine patches, the Associated Press reports. Brain scans revealed that nicotine triggered bursts in certain brain activity, but only in people prone to becoming easily angered.

Psychiatrist Steven Potkin, who led the study, says the findings could explain why some people are more prone to start smoking than others, and why the same people might find it harder to quit.

Moreover, he says, teenagers are generally more prone to fits of aggression since parts of their brains that control impulse are still forming. This may explain why people who begin smoking generally do so while in their teens.

Despite the common notion that nicotine has a calming effect, it may actually make smokers with "type A" personalities even more aggressive, Potkin tells the wire service. "They may smoke to feel better, but they don't," he points out.

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Concern Grows Over Lead in Computer Monitors

Researchers are concerned about what the Baltimore Sun calls an "environmental time bomb" -- discarded computer monitors that contain toxic lead.

Such is the environmental and health impact of cheaper and faster computers, the paper reports. A California environmental group estimates that between 300 million and 600 million are obsolete and heading to landfills in the next few years. Each monitor has three to five pounds of lead.

Environmentalists say monitors should be disposed of through a recycling program, but most states don't forbid people from throwing computers in the trash, the Sun reports.

"This is basically a toxic waste nightmare waiting to happen," the paper quotes Dr. Dan Morhaim, an environmentalist, as saying.

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Gene Therapy Could Produce Super Athletes

Athletes who abuse steroids and other muscle-enhancing drugs may be mere molehills compared to the mountainous possibilities created by genetic engineering, University of Pennsylvania researcher Lee Sweeney warns.

His lab studies show that rats injected with a engineered gene for "insulin like growth factor 1" experienced muscle growth of 15 to 30 percent, the Associated Press reports. And when the same technique was used on rats that were also put through an exercise program, their muscle strength doubled.

"The things we are developing with [alleviating] diseases in mind could one day be used for genetic enhancement of athletic performance," the wire service quotes Sweeney as saying at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While a spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Agency says the organization has already passed regulations forbidding genetic manipulation among athletes, gene therapy detection would be much more difficult and invasive than current testing for performance-boosting drugs.

Since word of his research has become public, Sweeney says more than half the e-mails he now gets come from athletes or trainers inquiring about his techniques, the AP reports.

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Bird Flu in Asia Shows No Signs of Waning

China has confirmed an outbreak of bird flu among fowl in Tibet, raising the number of regions reporting infections to 16 of the nation's 31, the Associated Press reports.

Thailand also reported a new regional outbreak among birds, and Vietnam says it has diagnosed another person with the deadly HN51 strain. Both countries are the only nations to report confirmed human infections, which have caused 20 deaths. The disease appears to spread from birds to people by direct contact.

The 10 Asian nations trying to contain the outbreak have slaughtered more than 60 million chickens, ducks, and other birds in the past two months, the AP reports.

The latest human infection in Vietnam is a 15-year-old boy, whose family does not raise poultry and says he had not had direct contact with sick birds, the wire service reports. Doctors say it's unclear about how he may have become infected.

Amid the discouraging news, health ministers from the affected Asian nations gathered in New Delhi on Monday to discuss ways to stem the epidemic.

The United States, meanwhile, has reported outbreaks in three states of a different form of bird flu that is not considered dangerous to people. Over the weekend, Pennsylvania became the latest state to confirm the disease among chickens, joining Delaware and New Jersey.

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U.S. Wants to Make Painkiller Harder to Get

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to make it more difficult to obtain the frequently prescribed painkiller/cough suppressant hydrocodone, the Washington Post reports.

Prescribed more than 100 million times last year, it's sold under the brand names Vicodin and Lortab, and as more than 200 generic brands. The DEA effort to curb abuse of the drug is meeting with stiff resistance from doctors, pharmacists, and people in pain, the newspaper reports.

Now available under less stringent rules of Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, the DEA wants to shift the medication to the highly restricted Schedule II. It would mean that patients would have to visit their doctors more often since the prescriptions couldn't be refilled, and that physicians could no longer phone in prescriptions for hydrocodone. Pharmacists would have significantly more paperwork to complete, and improper prescribing could result in more significant penalties, the Post says.

The DEA cites a 48 percent increase in emergency room visits due to hydrocodone abuse from 1998 to 2001. The drug is a chemical cousin of opium, and can produce a morphine-like euphoria in people who take it without a medical purpose, the newspaper says.

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Mouse Cloned from Nasal Cells

U.S. researchers have successfully cloned a mouse using neurons from the mature donor's olfactory (nasal) cells, the scientists report in the Feb. 15 online issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they were inspired by the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper, in which scientists are depicting as trying to clone a dead dictator from his nose.

The current study confirmed that a single mature olfactory neuron implanted into an egg depleted of its nucleus could give rise to a normal adult mouse. The researchers say previous efforts had failed using so-called "post-mitotic" cells -- cells that had ceased dividing and had transformed into cells with a highly specialized purpose like neurons.

The researchers emphasized that their experiments had no application to the just-announced achievement by South Korean scientists in cloning human embryos for research purposes.

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