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Health Highlights: Feb. 29, 2004

Harvard Plans $100 Million Stem Cell Research Center More Focus Needed on Threats to Women, Newborns, Say Experts Pfizer Abandons Viagra Trials for Women Asian Bird Flu Outbreak May Take a Year to Stop Experts Question Animal Medical Experiments Ohio Woman Delivers Sextuplets

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

Harvard Plans $100 Million Stem Cell Research Center

Harvard University is preparing to launch a $100 million stem cell research center, which would make it the largest private effort to evade the Bush administration's strict controls on the controversial research, the Boston Globe reports.

Stem cells, which are found in human embryos, umbilical cords and placentas, help create the human body through their ability to develop into any type of tissue cell. Scientists hope to someday manipulate stem cells in laboratories to develop into replacement organs and tissues to treat a host of diseases, including Parkinson's and diabetes, the newspaper reports.

But researchers must destroy embryos to collect the stem cells, and that has led to condemnation of the practice by the Catholic Church, abortion opponents and others. President Bush, citing concerns about the use of harvesting fertilized human egg cells for research, sharply curtailed government support for stem cell research in 2001.

Dr. George Q. Daley, who is helping to develop the center and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston, says, "Harvard has the resources, Harvard has the breadth, and, frankly, Harvard has the responsibility to be taking up the slack that the government is leaving."

The Harvard project is the latest, and by far largest, effort to circumvent the Bush administration restrictions on stem cell research. In December 2002, Stanford University said it had received a $12 million donation to study cancer by creating human embryonic stem cell lines, the newspaper reports.

Harvard officials say they will announce plans for the center on April 23, with a fund-raising goal of $100 million, the Globe says.

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More Focus Needed on Threats to Women, Newborns, Say Experts

In an effort to combat diseases and infections that disproportionately affect women and newborns, new screening tests and better education programs are needed or the health threats will only worsen over time.

That's the assessment of Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who spoke Friday at the start of a two-day international conference on women and infectious diseases in Atlanta.

Sexually transmitted diseases and certain other common infections -- such as hepatitis B -- affect greater numbers of women than men, and can be dangerous, particularly during pregnancy, Gerberding said. Cultural, economic and social factors also play a major role in the health disparities between men and women, Gerberding said, according to The New York Times.

Women often serve as the gatekeepers of their families' health care "but are last in line to address their own health problems for lack of time," Gerberding said.

Certain diseases can cause more serious illness and lead to greater complications among pregnant women. And women are at least four times more vulnerable to infection from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, the paper reports.

The conference is sponsored by the World Health Organization and the American Society for Microbiology.

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Pfizer Abandons Viagra Trials for Women

The drug company Pfizer Inc. has abandoned eight years of research into whether the anti-impotency drug Viagra can be used to treat female sexual problems because clinical trials on women proved inconclusive.

Karen Katen, executive vice president of Pfizer and president of Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals, said Friday that while the company was disappointed that the program was not more successful, "this is the nature of drug development," the Associated Press reports.

Female sexuality is more complex than male sexuality, involving psychological and emotional factors that don't seem to affect males, experts agree.

Joe Feczko, president of Worldwide Developing at Pfizer, said diagnosing sexual difficulties in women "involves assessing physical, emotional and relationship factors, and these complex and interdependent factors make measuring a medicine's effect very difficult."

Since Viagra hit the market in 1998 to treat male impotence, more than 23 million men have been prescribed the drug, Pfizer said.

The company said it continues to study other treatment approaches for women, the news agency reports.

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Asian Bird Flu Outbreak May Take a Year to Stop

It could take as long as a year to stop the Asian bird flu epidemic, according to animal health experts attending a conference on the disease being held in Bangkok, Thailand.

To date, the bird flu in Asia has killed 22 people and caused severe damage to the poultry industry.

One expert with the World Organization for Animal Health told the Associated Press that the bird flu epidemic in Asia is still not under control. Although the number of countries with bird flu did not increase in February, the expert says the virus is still circulating in countries already hit with infection.

He noted that the conference was told that it took six months for countries with abundant resources to bring the virus under control. Because there are fewer resources in the countries currently infected with bird flu, it will take them longer to rein in the problem.

Another expert, with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, offered a similar assessment, the AP reports.

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Experts Question Animal Medical Experiments

Some British scientists charge that many medical experiments done on animals offer little benefit in terms of finding ways to treat human diseases.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientists contend that much of the animal research is poorly conducted and not thoroughly evaluated, BBC News Online reports.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the scientists urge a systematic review of all existing animal research before any new animal experiments are conducted.

At the same time, the Royal Society, the U.K.'s national academy of science, published a guide that says scientific research on animals has provided tremendous benefits for humans.

According to the Royal Society, almost every medical accomplishment in the last century has relied, in some form, on the use of animals.

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Ohio Woman Delivers Sextuplets

Six proved to be an Ohio woman's lucky number on Thursday when she gave birth to sextuplets.

The three girls and three boys were delivered by caesarean section within one minute at Akron Medical Center. The mother, 29-year-old Jennifer Hanselman of Cuyahoga Falls, and the babies were all reported to be doing well, the Associated Press reports.

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reports that the mother turned down a doctor's advice to terminate some of the embryos.

"The speed at which the babies came out was overwhelming. It was like a popcorn popper," proud poppa Keith Hanselman said.

The babies, who ranged in weight from 1 pound, 9 ounces to 2 pounds, 10 ounces, were listed in critical condition. That's standard for premature births. They're all in the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron Children's Hospital. It's expected they'll remain there for about nine weeks.

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