Health Highlights: Dec. 21, 2007

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

Do Stem Cells Play a Prime Role in Cancer?

Cancerous stem cells are the focus of a preliminary study that will be launched within the next few months by scientists at three U.S. medical centers: the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Some experts believe that cancerous stem cells play a major role in maintaining and propagating malignant tumors, while others disagree, The New York Times reported.

    • Do Stem Cells Play a Prime Role in Cancer?
    • Wii Sports Games Do Little to Stop Weight Gain: Study
    • Moving Child From Orphanage to Foster Home Boosts IQ
    • Accidental CO Poisoning Kills More Than 400 Americans a Year
    • African Nations Facing Major Meningitis Outbreak: Red Cross

The cancerous stem cell hypothesis is closer to religion than science and proponents are so attached to the idea that they dismiss or ignore evidence against it, says Dr. Scott E. Kern, a leading pancreatic cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

But others say that developing new drugs that target cancerous stem cells may provide a treatment breakthrough.

"Within the next year, we will see medical centers targeting stem cells in almost every cancer," Dr. Max S. Wicha, director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, told the Times. "We are so excited about his. It has become a major thrust of our cancer center."

The U.S. National Cancer Institute will provide $5.4 million in funding for cancer stem cell studies.

"If this is real, it could have almost immediate impact," Dr. R. Allan Mufson, chief of the institute's Cancer Immunology and Hematology Branch, told the Times.


Wii Sports Games Do Little to Prevent Weight Gain: Study

There's no evidence that Nintendo's Wii sports games can help prevent weight gain in children, according to researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England.

Using a wireless controller, Wii users move their bodies while playing games such as bowling, boxing and tennis. While many people believe this helps burn calories, this study found only a minimal effect, Agence France-Presse reported.

The researchers monitored energy expenditure in six boys and five girls, ages 13 to 15, while they played the Wii games and conventional, sedentary video games. The study found that the children used 51 percent more energy while playing the Wii sports games compared to the sedentary games.

However, the children burned only 60 calories per hour (about one-quarter of a Mars bar) while playing the Wii sports games, AFP reported.

"In a typical week of computer play for these participants, active gaming rather than passive gaming would increase total energy expenditure by less than two percent," the study authors wrote in the British Medical Journal.


Moving Child From Orphanage to Foster Home Boosts IQ

A study of Romanian children found dramatic improvements in IQ once youngsters were removed from orphanages and placed in foster care instead.

The study, led by Dr. Charles Nelson III of Harvard Medical School, involved 136 young children from Bucharest's six orphanages. The children were randomly assigned to continue living in the orphanage or be moved into the new state-run foster care system.

The main finding: "The longer they stay in the institution, the worse their IQ," Nelson told the Associated Press. Improvements were most marked among children who left the orphanage before age 2, a period that experts believe is key to healthy brain development.

In fact, by 4.5 years of age, children who had been moved to foster care were scoring almost 10 points higher on IQ tests than those who had remained in the orphanage, and those who had made the move before age 2 scored an average 15 points higher, the researchers said.

In many cases, this leap in IQ meant the difference between borderline retardation and average intelligence, the team reported in the Dec. 21 issue of Science.

Children raised in their biological homes fared best of all, with IQ scores averaging 10-20 points higher than the foster-care children, the study found.

"The research provides concrete scientific evidence on the long-term impacts of the deprivation of quality care for children," UNICEF child protection specialist Aaron Greenberg told the AP. "The interesting part about this is the one-on-one caring of a young child ... impacts cognitive and intellectual development," he said.


Accidental CO Poisoning Kills More Than 400 Americans a Year

A new report underscores the importance of taking precautions to protect you and your loved ones from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, especially when using heating appliances during the winter.

From 1999 to 2004, accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning killed an average of 439 people a year in the United States, says a study in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless toxic gas produced by devices such as natural gas-powered furnaces and portable generators. Many people overlook or aren't aware of symptoms of CO poisoning, including headache, nausea, dizziness and confusion.

From 1999 to 2004, there were a total of 2,631 unintentional, non-fire-related CO deaths in the nation, for an annual average age-adjusted death rate of 1.5 deaths per one million people. Those most likely to die this way included adults over age 65 (628), men (1,958), non-Hispanic whites (1,941), and non-Hispanic blacks (305).

Most of the deaths occurred in January and, among states, Nebraska had the highest CO-related death rate.

The report also noted that unintentional CO exposure causes about 15,000 emergency department visits a year in the U.S.

The authors called for increased public education, especially during the winter heating season, to help prevent deaths from CO poisoning. They also recommended establishment of a national surveillance system to monitor CO-related health outcomes. This information could help target public prevention efforts and reduce CO-related injury and death.


African Nations Facing Major Meningitis Outbreak: Red Cross

Fourteen African countries may be on the verge of the worst meningitis outbreak in a decade, Red Cross officials warned Thursday. The first indications of an epidemic could appear in February or March.

In preparation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is starting meningitis prevention programs in those countries, Agence France-Presse reported. These efforts include a four-month awareness campaign, and training about 25,000 volunteers in community-based first aid.

Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the central nervous system. Some forms are mild and resolve on their own, but other forms are deadly, AFP reported.

"Meningococcal meningitis is one of the most feared epidemic diseases in Africa because of its rapid onset, high fatality rates and long-term impacts such as brain damage and deafness affecting many survivors," said Jari Vainio, senior Red Cross public health officer.

Countries facing a possible meningitis outbreak are: Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.