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Health Highlights: June 12, 2005

Stem Cell Growth Genetic Material Discovered New Avian Flu Outbreaks in China Kill Migratory Birds Parents Drop Objection To Daughter's Cancer TreatmentU.S. Agriculture Secretary: We're Protected From Mad Cow Disease FDA Approves 2nd Whooping Cough Vaccine West Nile Vaccine Shows Promise in Mice

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

Stem Cell Growth Genetic Material Discovered

The reason that stem cells' ability to regenerate long after other cells have stopped may be in a genetic substance discovered by scientists at Northwestern University and the University of Washington.

The researchers published their findings in last week's online edition of the journal Nature, and concluded that the substance, microRNA, allows stem cells not only to keep dividing long after other cells in the body have ended their growth, but also may provide the clue as to why cancer cells also multiply so rapidly.

The researchers used fruit flies for their experiment, which have approximately 80 types of microRNAs. Normal stem cell growth continued, while the growth of mutant stem cells -- which had no microRNA -- stopped. The scientists concluded that the mutant stem cells stopped because of the lack of microRNA, which also isn't present in normal cells.

The next step, the scientists say, is to find out the role of micrRNa in cancer cells.

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New Avian Flu Outbreaks in China Kill Migratory Birds

Health officials who have been monitoring the spread of the so-called avian flu in Asia have new cause for alarm, according to the New York Times

The newspaper reports that two new outbreaks of the disease that affects many bird species have been found in waterfowl that migrate. This indicates the flu virus is mutating, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said, because until recently, waterfowl such as geese had been resistant to the avian flu.

Scientists have already established that some strains of avian flu can kill humans. The latest WHO information has 54 human deaths reported, all from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. But health officials are concerned that a potentially deadly form of the virus will be transmitted world-wide, and that's why the latest outbreaks among migratory geese have scientists concerned.

With the latest incidents, the Times reports, more than 13,000 geese were destroyed after about 500 had died of a flu strain known as H5N1 avian flu.

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Parents Drop Objection To Daughter's Cancer Treatment

After learning that their daughter was no longer in remission after chemotherapy to treat Hodgkins disease, Katie Wernecke's parents have dropped their objection to followup treatment.

But Katie, who is celebrating her 13th birthday, will remain in state custody while undergoing more chemotherapy after being taken from her parents by Texas child welfare authorities Friday.

Her parents had refused on religious grounds to allow the girl to get radiation treatment, but now that they learned that medical analysis of her condition indicated the cancer may have returned, they no longer object to more chemotherapy, the Associated Press reports.

Last week, authorities issued an Amber Alert to gain custody of Katie after receiving an anonymous tip about alleged neglect, the AP said.

Michele and Edward Wernecke had asked a judge to bar radiation therapy for their daughter, saying they are members of the Church of God and oppose blood transfusions except from a family member. Hodgkin's disease is a cancer affecting the lymph nodes.

Katie was found late last week with her mother at a family ranch. Her father was arrested on charges of interfering with child custody, and was released Monday after posting $50,000 bail. The Werneckes' three sons were placed in a foster home, the AP said.

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary: We're Protected From Mad Cow Disease

Saying that he was going to "enjoy a good steak" and that his agency's firewall was working, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told a news conference late Friday that the possibility of another case of mad cow disease did not endanger the nation's beef supply.

Johanns emphasized that more tests were needed and that the animal didn't enter into the beef supply chain. The animal had been previously tested and cleared, the Associated Press reports, but additional testing offered the possibility that the it might have mad cow disease. Only one confirmed case of mad cow disease -- a fatal brain disorder -- has been found in the U.S., and that was in 2003 from an animal imported from Canada.

"We do not have a human health risk," Johanns said. "This animal did not enter the food chain. This animal never got near the food or feed chain." Further tests are being conducted to determine whether the cow had mad cow disease.

Its scientific name is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and mad cow's human variant condition,Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is just as deadly. More than 150 people in the United Kingdom died in the 1990s during a mad cow epidemic.

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FDA Approves 2nd Whooping Cough Vaccine

The first adult booster shot for whooping cough has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency said Friday.

Aventis Pasteur's Adacel is the second whooping cough vaccine to be approved in little more than a month. In May, GlaxoSmithKline's Boostrix was sanctioned for use in adolescents ages 10 to 18, while Adacel has been approved for both adults and teens, the agency said.

Adacel combines a whooping cough inoculation with vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria. It contains the same components as an Aventis booster meant for infants, called Daptacel, though it has weaker forms of both the whooping cough and diphtheria germs, the FDA said.

Whooping cough, medically called pertussis, can be more severe in children and can be fatal. It produces coughs so strong that it can break a rib.

Older vaccines for pertussis have been known to wear off, allowing older people to transmit the bacterial illness to infants and very young children with weaker immune systems.

Side effects of Adacel include injection site pain and low-grade fever, which are common results from similar vaccines, the FDA said.

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West Nile Vaccine Shows Promise in Mice

A vaccine produced from a human antibody of people who have had West Nile virus has prevented infections in mice, its maker said Friday.

Dutch company Crucell NV said it planned human clinical trials of the vaccine by year's end, the Associated Press reported.

The company said while it devised the vaccine to prevent West Nile infection among the elderly, the inoculation could also be used to treat an active case of West Nile, the wire service reported.

West Nile, which first arrived in the United States in 1999, killed 88 residents last year and infected 2,470, the company said. The elderly and young children are at higher risk of a severe form that progresses to encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can be fatal.

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