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Health Highlights: July 8, 2004

New Drug Stems HIV in Monkeys Syphilis Outbreak Hasn't Led to HIV Georgia Senator Has Prostate Cancer Lead Prompts Massive Recall of Toy Jewelry Study Ties Artificial Sweeteners to Overeating Robotic Device Approved for Heart Surgery

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

New Drug Stems HIV in Monkeys

An experimental new drug appears to prevent the AIDS-causing HIV virus from infecting monkeys, researchers at drugmaker Merck & Co. say.

The drug apparently thwarts the process by which HIV replicates within the body, according to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC).

The Merck researchers say their newly discovered compounds inhibit the production of so-called "integrase" enzymes that help the virus reproduce itself. The new medication seems to protect newly infected monkeys and help those that are already sick, the researchers write in the July 9 issue of the journal Science.

The drug, codenamed L-879812, is now being tested on a small number of human volunteers. It's likely to progress to larger trials if the small study is successful, the CBC report said.

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Syphilis Outbreak Hasn't Led to HIV

Health officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles braced themselves for the worst when they saw an explosion of syphilis cases in gay men, but the rise they expected to see in subsequent HIV infections hasn't materialized.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that, between 1999 and 2002, the increase in syphilis has "not had a substantial impact on rates of new HIV infection" among men who have sex with men.

In fact, researchers said, the number of new HIV cases declined slightly in both cities.

According to the article in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, experts worried about a rise in HIV in this population because syphilis makes the acquisition and transmission of the AIDS virus easier.

Officials checked with major HIV testing centers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They found that in San Francisco, the HIV rates of gay men declined slightly between 1999 and 2002 even though the syphilis rate rose by a factor of 20. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the percentage of new HIV cases in this population fell from 4.8 percent to 4.1 percent, even though the syphilis rate rose 40-fold.

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Georgia Senator Has Prostate Cancer

U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) announced Thursday that he has prostate cancer, but is expected to recover, the Associated Press reported.

The illness was diagnosed during a routine physical. Chambliss, 60, issued a statement underscoring the importance of having an annual checkup.

"Early detection is critical to finding prostate cancer during the initial stages when treatment is most likely to be effective," the statement said.

Chambliss said he had no immediate plans to take time off for medical treatment. The first-term senator defeated Democratic incumbent Max Cleland in 2002.

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Lead Prompts Massive Recall of Toy Jewelry

Some 150 million pieces of imported toy jewelry sold in vending machines are being recalled because they may contain dangerous levels of lead, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says.

While only half of the affected rings, necklaces, and bracelets may actually contain lead, it is difficult to distinguish between the two types, a CPSC statement said.

No injuries associated with the products have been reported. The four importers involved say they have stopped selling any jewelry that may contain lead, according to the CPSC. Consumers are urged to throw away any products that may have been recalled.

Affected rings are gold- or silver-colored with different designs and paint finishes with various shaped center stones. The necklaces have black cord or rope or gold- or silver-colored chains. The necklaces have pendants, crosses, or various geometrical designs or shapes, and can include gemstones. The various styles of bracelets include charm bracelets, bracelets with medallion links, and bracelets with faux stones. All of the products were manufactured in India.

The jewelry was sold in vending machines located in malls and discount, department, and grocery stores nationwide from January 2002 through June 2004 for between $0.25 and $0.75. For more information, contact the Toy Jewelry Recall Hotline at 1-800-441-4234 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Study Ties Artificial Sweeteners to Overeating

Consuming artificially sweetened foods and beverages may throw off your natural ability to monitor calories and increase your likelihood of overeating.

That's the claim of a new study performed on rats by two Purdue University researchers. Results appear in the July issue of the International Journal of Obesity, according to HealthDay.

Not surprisingly, a spokeswoman for the sweetener industry takes exception to the study, pointing out that it was done only on animals and that previous research has found the use of artificial sweeteners actually helps weight-control efforts.

In the study, two groups of rats were given two different sweet-flavored liquids. For the first group, both liquids were sweetened with natural high-calorie sweeteners so the relationship between taste and calories was consistent. For the second group, one of the two flavored liquids was artificially sweetened with saccharin, making the relationship between sweet taste and calories inconsistent.

After 10 days, the rats were allowed to eat a sweet, high-calorie, chocolate-flavored snack. The rats that had had the artificially flavored liquid were less able to compensate for the calories in the snack; they ate about three times as many calories as those that didn't get artificially sweetened drinks, the researchers said.

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Robotic Device Approved for Heart Surgery

Doctors who perform coronary bypasses have a new helper -- a robotic-like system that allows them to perform cardiac surgery while seated at a computer screen.

The Da Vinci Endoscopic Instrument Control System, made by Intuitive Surgical of Mountain View, Calif., uses handgrips and foot pedals to control three robotic arms that can manipulate a variety of surgical tools. A wrist-like feature can afford more intricate motion and better control of the tools than the human hand, the company said.

The system won its latest approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday. It had already been FDA-approved for several other types of cardiac surgery, and for general gall bladder and reflux disease surgery, an FDA statement said.

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