Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 10, 2001

Gulf War Service Linked to Lou Gehrig's Disease FDA Approves New Blood Thinner Ebola Virus Claims 11 Lives in West Africa Anthrax Mail at Federal Reserve Involves 600 Letters Egyptian Doctors Seek Help for Siamese Twins Researchers Turn Stem Cells into Precursors of Brain Cells

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

Gulf War Service Linked to Lou Gehrig's Disease

Americans who served in the Persian Gulf War were nearly twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig's disease as other military personnel, the government said today. It was the first time officials acknowledged a scientific link between service in the Gulf and a specific disease, the Associated Press reported.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it would immediately offer disability and survivor benefits to veterans with the disease who served in the Persian Gulf during the conflict a decade ago, the AP said.

"The hazards of the modern day battlefield are more than bullet wounds and saber cuts," said Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The research, which included nearly 2.5 million military personnel, is one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted and offers the most conclusive evidence to date linking Gulf War veterans to any disease. Still, researchers don't know why these veterans were more likely to get sick, according to the AP.


FDA Approves New Blood Thinner

The government approved a new type of blood thinner today that generated doctor excitement when studies suggested it cut the risk of blood clots after hip and knee surgery more than standard therapy, the Associated Press reported.

But in approving Arixtra, the Food and Drug Administration warned that it may not really be superior to standard therapy because of a quirk in how those studies were performed. In addition, the drug cannot be given to some patients -- those with serious kidney failure or who weigh less than 110 pounds -- because it could cause dangerous bleeding.

Blood clots in the deep veins of the legs are a common and severe threat after hip replacement, knee replacement or a hip fracture. The clots can kill if they break off and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs. To prevent this condition, called deep-vein thrombosis, those patients always are given blood thinners after surgery, typically heparin or newer "low molecular-weight heparins'' that sell under various brand names, including Lovenox.

Arixtra is the first synthetic option. It was made by culling one portion of the heparin molecule, a piece that inhibits activated Factor X, a key component in causing blood clots. In manufacturer-sponsored clinical trials of more than 4,000 patients, those given Arixtra were 50 percent less likely to suffer a clot than those given Lovenox.

Arixtra, known chemically as fondaparinux, will be available starting in late January, said manufacturer Organon Sanofi-Synthelabo.


Ebola Outbreak Confirmed in West Africa; 11 Dead

Health experts were headed today to the west African nation of Gabon, where 11 people have died from the highly contagious Ebola virus -- and the number is expected to rise, the Associated Press reported.

It was not immediately clear how many people were infected, or over what period. Government officials first said they suspected an outbreak last Tuesday, after villagers reported finding an unusually large number of dead primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees, World Wildlife Fund representative Allogo Ndong said in the capital, Libreville.

Around the same time, patients began turning up with symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. The dead included 10 members of an extended family and a health worker.

The World Health Organization confirmed the outbreak yesterday, saying it was in the remote northeastern province of Ogooue Ivindo, where 45 people were killed when Ebola last struck in 1996-97. The area is near the border of the Republic of Congo.

Ebola is passed through contact with bodily fluids, such as mucus, saliva and blood, and the virus causes severe internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea. There is no cure, but patients treated early for dehydration have a good chance of survival, the AP said.


600 Letters Involved in Anthrax Tests at Federal Reserve

Workers at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C, were still going through hundreds of letters today in an effort to locate the source of a positive reading for anthrax last week, the Associated Press reported.

Fed spokesman Dave Skidmore said there were about 600 pieces of mail in the batch that tested positive for anthrax, instead of the 100 to 150 pieces of mail that officials had estimated last week were involved. He said it probably would be midweek before all the testing is completed.

Until then, officials said, they will not be able to determine whether the source of the positive anthrax reading in the Fed's mail came from cross-contamination with other mail or whether it represents a new anthrax letter.

The testing is being done in two trailers set up in a courtyard of the Fed's headquarters as a temporary mail processing facility. The temporary center started operations following the appearance of the anthrax-tainted letter mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in October.


Egyptian Doctors Seek Help for Siamese Twins

Doctors in Egypt are asking for international medical help to separate Siamese twins joined at the head, according to an Associated Press report today.

The twins, Ahmed and Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, are 6 months old and share a small part of their brain, said Dr. Nasser Abdel Al, head of the neonatal surgical intensive care unit at Cairo Hospital, the AP said.

"We are hoping, by international cooperation and by international consultation, to reach the proper date and proper procedure and the proper place where they are going to be separated," Abdel Al said.

Earlier this year, a team of doctors in Singapore spent 100 hours to separate two Siamese twin girls from Nepal who had been joined at the head.


Researchers Turn Stem Cells into Precursors of Brain Cells

American and Israeli research teams report they've developed similar methods for turning human embryonic stem cells into the predecessors for almost any kind of brain cell, HealthDay reported today.

Both sets of scientists produced cultures made almost entirely of neural precursor cells that they then implanted in the brains of newborn mice. With refinements, the researchers say they hope their methods lead to treatments for a variety of human neurological diseases.

Stem cells are master cells that can become any type of cell in the body. The embryonic cells in the U.S. study belong to one of the stem cell lines approved by the government, and did not involve cloning. "What we did is to coach the [stem cells] towards a specialized fate," says Dr. Su-Chun Zhang, lead author of the American study. "In other words, to make them become cells that would only generate brain cells."

In the second study, conducted at the Agnes Ginges Center for Human Neurogenetics at the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, researchers let stem cells grow, then removed the clusters that had markers of becoming neural cells, and gave them two growth factors. The result: highly purified concentrations of neural precursor cells.

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