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Health Highlights: July 25, 2005

Gut Hormone Injections Suppress Appetite China Rules Out Bird Flu in Mysterious Deaths Protein May Precipitate Stomach Cancer, Study Says Scientist Who Linked Smoking, Lung Cancer Dies Statins Improve Heart Failure Patients' Survival Rate

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

Gut Hormone Injections Suppress Appetite

Injections of the gut hormone oxyntomodulin, which occurs naturally in the intestine, suppress appetite and help overweight people lose weight, according to a U.K. study in the journal Diabetes.

The study of 26 overweight or obese people found that those who received the hormone injections lost an average of five pounds over four weeks, compared with an average loss of one pound among those who received a saline solution placebo.

The study participants injected themselves with the hormone or saline solution 30 minutes before each meal, three times a day, for four weeks, BBC News reported. While the people taking the hormone had reduced appetite, they reported no change in their enjoyment of food.

Oxyntomodulin tells the brain to stop eating when the body has had enough food. The hormone is normally released from the small intestine as a person consumes food.

The study authors said more research with larger groups of people is needed in order to confirm that treatment with the hormone is effective over longer periods, BBC News reported.

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China Rules Out Bird Flu in Mysterious Deaths

The mysterious deaths of 17 farmers in China probably was caused by a bacterial infection that predominantly strikes pigs but can spread to people, government and international health officials said Monday.

It was first feared that the farmers in southwest Sichuan Province had died of the deadly bird flu virus that has killed more than 50 people in other parts of Asia.

The rash of deaths and illnesses in China began about four weeks ago, The New York Times reported. State media have reported 17 deaths and at least 41 cases of illness. Many of the dead farmers had recently slaughtered pigs, raising concern since avian flu can also be spread via these animals.

A spokesman for the World Health Organization said doctors had identified the illness as streptococcus suis, a bacteria carried by pigs that can be spread to people.

China is sensitive to public health threats after criticism of its handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which emerged in 2002. The government was widely criticized for its slow response to pleas for information about the disease, which killed almost 800 people worldwide before subsiding in July 2003, according to the Associated Press.

China also is trying to contain the outbreak of avian flu in its west, where thousands of migratory birds have died in recent weeks.

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Protein May Precipitate Stomach Cancer, Study Says

A new study suggests that a hyperactive stomach protein may be a culprit in causing stomach cancer to develop.

The research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, centered on a protein known as Stat3, which can become hyperactive in the stomach and shut down cell growth. This, in turn, can allow other cells more likely to develop into cancer to take hold.

A news release from the Melbourne, Australia branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) quotes the study's lead author, Dr. Brendan Jenkins, as saying that in the research done with mice, "hyperactive Stat3 shuts down a vital controller of stomach cell growth, called TGF beta, and this allows cancer formation, and this mechanistic link is a world-first."

The news release also quotes team leader Dr. Matthias Ernst as saying this research may be beneficial in therapy for other types of cancer. "Add to that the evidence suggesting that Stat3 is also involved in breast, head and neck, and prostate cancers, and we have a compelling case for investigating the development of therapies that target Stat3," Ernst said.

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Scientist Who Linked Smoking, Lung Cancer Dies

Sir Richard Doll, a British scientist whose name never reached the public recognition level that some of his peers like Dr. Jonas Salk did, died Sunday in Oxford at the age of 92.

Doll was the researcher whose landmark 1950 study first established the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. According to the Associated Press, Doll was an epidemiologist who continued his research at Oxford University's Imperial Cancer Research Center right up to the time of his death. The exact cause of death was not immediately released.

Doll wrote his 1950 study with Austin Bradford Hill, and it concluded that smoking was "a cause, and a major cause" of lung cancer, the wire service said.

Doll's latest research was published in 2004 and found that somewhere between 50 percent and 66 percent of people who begin smoking in their youth are eventually killed by the habit, the wire service reported.

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Statins Improve Heart Failure Patients' Survival Rate

Statins -- the drugs that reduce a person's cholesterol level in the blood -- may be effective in lowering the mortality rate for a type of heart failure, according to new research.

Researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center report in the latest edition of the journal Circulation that statins appear to help the survival rate of people with diastolic heart failure (DHF).

According to a Wake Forest news release, the findings may be significant because "currently, there are no treatments shown to improve survival in these patients, who make up about 40 percent of all heart failure cases."

Diastolic heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to receive blood normally. The reason for this, researchers say, is the heart doesn't fully relax for patients with DHF and doesn't fill properly with blood. The mortality rate is 5 to 8 percent per year, according to the research.

The Wake Forest cardiologists studied the survival rates of 137 DHF heart failure patients over a three-year period. The patients were being treated with a variety of heart drugs -- ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, calcium blockers and/or statins.

The scientists found that during the study period, heart failure patients on statin therapy had a mortality risk that was 22 percent lower than the patients receiving the other drugs. Even after adjusting for other factors -- hypertension or cardiovascular disease -- the heart failure patients on statins still fared better, the researchers said.

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