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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 7, 2001

Feds Allow Ecstasy Tests for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Double Mastectomy Can Protect Some Women Against Breast Cancer Gov't. Posts Stem Cell Lines on Internet Security Chief: Anthrax Attacks Still a Mystery

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

Feds Allow Ecstasy Tests for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The federal government will allow researchers to test the illegal drug MDMA, commonly known on the club scene as "ecstasy," as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the 1970s, MDMA was used by many psychiatrists to treat the disorder. Some psychiatrists believe the drug can allow victims to have a cathartic moment, releasing their emotional stress over a traumatic incident, according to the Associated Press.

Treatment using MDMA was halted after the federal government began to crack down on the drug for its recreational use.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts millions of Americans, is caused by fixation on an emotionally charged event. Victims often experience bad dreams and have trouble with relationships -- essentially having become stuck in the moment of crisis, the AP said.

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Double Mastectomy Can Protect Some Women From Breast Cancer

A combination of gene mutations and a history of breast cancer among close relatives can put some women at very high risk of developing the disease. But, a Mayo Clinic study shows the risk drops almost to zero if both breasts are surgically removed, the Associated Press reported.

The study, published in today's Journal of the National Cancer Institute, involved a rare group of women -- those who had close relatives with breast cancer and who also had a mutation in one of two genes, BRCA1 or BRCA2, which have been linked to breast cancer.

The average woman has about a 10 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer. For the women in the study, the lifetime risk was 55 percent to 85 percent, the AP said, citing the researchers.

For such women, a double mastectomy may be considered a reasonable option, said the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Lynn C. Hartmann.

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Gov't. Posts Approved Stem Cell Lines

Stem cell colonies approved for federally funded research now number 72, eight more than were identified earlier in the year, the government reported today, according to the Associated Press.

The National Institutes of Health posted a list of the approved cells lines on the Internet in what it calls a "Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.'' The registry is part of a system established by the Bush administration after plans for humans stem cell research created heated debates between some scientific groups and conservative religious organizations.

Under the rules, scientists who want to apply for a government grant to study embryonic stem cells must select from the registry, said Dr. Wendy Baldwin of the NIH. She said that eight new cell lines on the registry all come from the 64 embryos that officials had identified as acceptable for government-supported research.

The list grew because a company grew new cell colonies, or cell lines, from approved cells obtained from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in Madison, Wis., Baldwin said. The added cells have the same genetic structure as the Wisconsin source cells.

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Ridge: We Still Don't Know Who's Behind Anthrax Threat

Despite a month-long investigation, the Bush Administration has still not been able to determine whether the deadly anthrax attacks were the work of domestic criminals or overseas terrorists, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said today.

"I am hopeful, like the rest of America, that the anthrax has stopped permanently,'' he said at a White House news conference, according to The Associated Press. He also disclosed that authorities had received roughly 10,000 anthrax hoaxes, and that 25 people had been arrested as a result.

Meanwhile, a worker at the Brentwood mail distribution center in Washington, D.C., who died of inhalation anthrax last month knew he had been exposed to a suspicious letter and tried to tell postal officials, apparently to no avail, CNN reported today.

In a 911 call placed just hours before his Oct. 21 death, Thomas Morris Jr. requested an ambulance and described symptoms consistent with inhalation anthrax, the network said.

Morris, 55, said a woman working near him found a letter with powder in it October 13, two days before Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle received an anthax-laced letter from the Brentwood facility, CNN said.

Postmaster General John Nolan, asked today about Morris' 911 call, said, "I am not aware that he [Morris] saw the Daschle letter," CNN reported.

Morris was one of two Brentwood workers to die of inhalation anthrax; two others remain hospitalized with the same disease.

CNN also reported yesterday that lawmakers were critical of the FBI for a lack of progress in the anthrax-by-mail campaign. At a Senate hearing yesterday on the threat of bioterrorism, panel chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was "surprised the FBI hasn't made more progress" in tracing sources of the potentially deadly bacterium that has left four people dead and dozens more infected.

Elsewhere, the chief postal inspector, Kenneth Weaver, told the Postal Board of Governors yesterday that his inspectors were screening the mail passing through selected postal facilities and are following up more than 300 leads received from a broadcast of the TV show "America's Most Wanted, '' according to the AP.

The Postal Service, meanwhile, upped its reward offer in the anthrax-by-mail attacks today. The advertising company Advo chipped in $250,000 to boost the reward to $1.25 million, Postmaster General John E. Potter announced.

But nine days after the last anthrax diagnosis, a top federal health official said the worst may be over. "For this episode, we're out of the woods,'' said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, the AP reported.

The big fear had been that New York hospital worker Kathy Nguyen could be the first fatality of an anthrax attack by some means other than mail, he said. But "every day that goes by without seeing another unexplained inhalational case makes it less and less likely'' that happened, said Fauci.

However, another attack -- either newly mailed anthrax-tainted letters or by some other means -- can't be ruled out. Until the death of Nguyen is solved, "vigilance is heightened around the country,'' said Dr. James Hughes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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