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Death of destruction

National | Jones Institute backs off on killing embryos, doctors declare victory over rubella, and other health news

Issue: "Illegal siblings project," Feb. 2, 2002

Life-saving decision
The first institution to announce that it was creating human embryos just to harvest stem cells announced on Jan. 17 that it would abandon the practice. Officials at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, which was responsible for the first American test-tube baby, said they wanted to concentrate on other areas. Last July, the school announced it had used donated eggs and sperm to create embryos that were destroyed for experimentation. Before that, researchers had tried to collect stem cells from embryos discarded from fertility treatments. The decision became a lightning rod of controversy and now the Jones Institute is backing away from the practice. William E. Gibbons, chairman of the school's department of obstetrics and gynecology, denied that the decision was a reaction to political pressure and said the institute may use human stem cells from some of the 60 existing lines approved last year by President Bush. Pro-life advocate Keith Fournier, who led a prayer vigil outside the institute last summer, told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk that he was pleased with the decision. It was, he said, "the proper choice, scientifically and morally, to no longer engage in manufacturing human embryonic life for experimentation that always leads to destruction." The school receives about a quarter of its budget from taxpayers, via local, state, and federal funds. VR day
Is rubella beaten? A new study finds the United States is well on the way to eliminating the dreaded German measles. The disease once affected tens of thousands of people, causing frequent birth defects. Rubella's main symptom is a mild rash, which was once not taken seriously. Then doctors discovered that it could be a nightmare for an infected pregnant woman, causing miscarriages, stillbirths, and developmental problems in surviving children. Yet these disastrous effects "can be prevented with just one dose" of vaccine, said Susan E. Reef of the Centers for Disease Control's National Immunization Program. The virus's effects were discovered in the 1940s and vaccination started in 1969. Since then, the number of reported cases dropped from almost 58,000 to 272 in 1999, according to the CDC. The disease appears now almost always in Hispanic adults from other countries, which means the virus may no longer circulate in the United States. The CDC still warns, however, that rubella remains a serious problem outside U.S. borders. It can spread in places like schools or offices where people spend time close together. Stanford Shulman, head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said the study shows "the incredible power of immunization." Infants are routinely inoculated against rubella, although a small but vocal number of parents have withheld their children due to fears that the vaccine may be connected with autism. The roots of trauma
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought new interest in post-traumatic stress, or what happens to the brain during and after highly stressful events. A new study from Israeli researchers suggests an unusual chemical reaction may cause the anxiety found in some people after a calamity. Doctors use the term post-traumatic stress disorder to describe a variety of symptoms that may appear in some people who survive great trauma, including high anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks. Hermona Soreq and his colleagues at Hebrew University experimented on mice, studying the effect of a protein called AChE (short for acetylcholinesterase) that helps information move around between the brain's neurons. After stress, the rodents were hypersensitive for weeks as their brains' electrical activity increased, and the stress caused the mouse to produce an unusual form of AChE that is not useful to neurons. Rockefeller University professor Bruce McEwen said the findings are a useful lead, but that post-traumatic stress disorder "is a very complicated phenomenon in which various hormones in the body and various systems in the brain may all be involved." Other researchers found in animal tests that the brain's circuitry in an area known as the amygdala actually changes after stress. Additional studies have found that people with low supplies of a hormone called cortisol were more likely to show symptoms.

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