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Health Highlights: March 3, 2009

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

Doctor's Plan for Custom-Made Babies Condemned

Bioethicists and other critics are condemning an American doctor's offer to let parents pick the color of their children's eyes and hair. Dr. Jeff Steinberg says the service will be available at the New York City and Los Angeles offices of his Fertility Institutes within six months.

Doctors will examine the genetic character of embryos created in a lab and implant the ones that have the best chance of giving parents a baby with the desired traits, the New York Daily News reported.

The announcement triggered widespread criticism.

"We're crossing the line into eugenics, the theory of trying to give people enhanced characteristics -- genetic engineering to make sort of the superman or superwomen," Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, director of ethics at New York Medical College and St. Vincent's Hospital, told the Daily News.

Some say Steinberg doesn't have the ability to give parents what they want.

"He's the only one offering this because you can't yet do it. Nobody can do this right now," said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Technology.


Vaccine Said to Trigger Instant Immune Response

A method of vaccination that provides instant immunity could give people spontaneous protection against diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, toxins and even cancerous cells, according to scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California.

Current vaccines can take days or weeks before they offer protection. But the two-stage method developed by the Scripps team targets specific cells and creates a "universal" immune reaction, Agence France Presse reported.

"The antibodies in our vaccine are designed to circulate inertly until they receive instructions from tailor-made small molecules to become active against a specific target," explained team leader Carlos Barbas.

"The advantage of this method is that it opens up the possibility of having antibodies primed and ready to go in the time it takes to receive an injection or swallow a pill," he told AFP. "This would apply whether the target is a cancer cell, flu virus, or a toxin like anthrax that soldiers or even civilian populations might have to face during a bioterrorism attack."

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Chinese Doctors Urged to Quit Smoking

The large number of male Chinese doctors who smoke are being urged to quit in order to set a good example for their patients, say government officials. More than 56 percent of male doctors in China smoke, the highest rate in the world, according to state media, Agence France Presse reported.

No figures were given for the smoking rate among all doctors in China.

"Medical workers and those who make decisions regarding people's health should take the lead in quitting smoking and completely banning indoor smoking," said Health Minister Chen Zhu, reported the China Daily. "International experience has it that when doctors give up smoking, it encourages a lot of others to kick the habit."

There are about 350 million smokers in China and one million die of smoking-related diseases every year.


Obama Nominates Kansas Gov. Sebelius to Lead HHS

President Obama announced Monday that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is his choice for health and human services secretary, the Associated Press reported.

He also named Nancy-Ann DeParle as the director of the newly created White House Office for Health Reform.

The announcement comes just days before a White House summit on health care that will include lawmakers from both parties and representatives of major interest groups, including consumers, insurers and drug companies.

If the 60-year-old Sebelius wins confirmation, she faces a number of major challenges, including being the public face of White House plans for health care reform and dealing with the fallout from a long list of food and drug safety lapses that have tarnished the reputation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Sebelius is considered an experienced public official with a steady hand who can work across political lines, the AP reported.

She is actually Obama's second choice. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was the president's first choice, but Daschle withdrew his nomination after disclosing he had tax problems.

DeParle served in the Clinton administration as head of the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, and also worked in Clinton's budget office.

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Posted: March 2009