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Health Notes: Iron fortified Rice, Needle Free Vaccines, First Face Transplant

Iron Rich Rice Boosts Women's Nutritional Health

Food plants from a strong lineage can boost dietary health. A study in the December issue of The Journal of Nutrition finds that field-grown rice selectively bred to contain higher-than-normal concentrations of iron improved the nutritional status of people who ate the grain.

Lead author Jere Haas is a professor of maternal and child nutrition at Cornell University. He says the experiment conducted on nuns in the Philippines demonstrated positive results. "We found, first of all, even the small amount of additional iron that is consumed in the rice, provides about a 20 percent increase in the total amount of iron in the diet," he says. "That in turn translates into an increase in the total body iron that is stored after consuming the rice for about nine months, which was the period of time of our study."

Mr. Haas says the next step is to test the iron-fortified rice in the marketplace, which, he says, would address another series of issues. "Do people buy it? Do the farmers grow it? Does it have the kind of qualities that they like in terms of processing, in terms of cooking and certainly in terms of the smell and the taste and the color that they are used to consuming in their normal rice?"

Many food products in industrialized countries are fortified with nutrients through a chemical process, as opposed to selective breeding in the field as was the case in this study.

Iron is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world, affecting 3.5 billion people, largely in the developing world. Low iron is responsible for anemia, impaired cognitive abilities and reduced worker productivity.

Mr. Haas says the natural plant approach may be a less costly and more effective way to get nutrients to the people who need them the most. "We believe in the long run that it is going to be much more sustainable because you don't have to rely on industry to provide those nutrients in the food supply," he says.

The study is part of a larger effort coordinated by HarvestPlus of the Washington-based International Food Policy Institute, to develop staple foods that have enhanced micronutrient content.

Medical Advances Pave Way for Needle-Free Immunization

Needles are the most common way of delivering vaccines. But they are not often safe, says Samir Mitragotri, professor of chemical engineering at the University of California. He is author of a study on needle-free immunization published in the December issue of the journal Nature Reviews Immunology. "There are issues such as reuse of needles. There are issues such as accidental punctures because of needles, and it turns out that these issues cause a lot of infections themselves," he says.

According to the World Health Organization, improper use of needles and syringes leads to millions of cases of hepatitis B and C and thousands of HIV infections. Mr. Mitragotri says over the last decade considerable progress has been made in the development of needle-free vaccines. "Especially in the case of topical applications and nasal applications, these techniques have advanced to the next level and they have been tested in humans," he says.

Beyond proof of efficacy, developers must work out the cost and distribution methods for these applications. Samir Mitragotri says, despite these challenges, he expects vaccines without needles to play a major role in global immunization in near future.

Ground Breaking Surgery Gives Patient a New Face

The 38-year French woman who received the first-ever last month is reportedly in good condition. Despite criticism from some experts about the ethics of performing the surgery on someone who may have suffered psychological problems in the past, her doctors say that she was an excellent candidate for the operation.

The woman's face had been severely mauled in a dog attack. She lost parts of her lips, chin and nose and could barely talk, eat or drink.

Doctors chose the experimental transplant over reconstructive surgery because the patient did not have enough facial tissue to work with. Surgeon Peter Constantino at Roosevelt Hospital in New York says her condition prior to the operation was expected to worsen. "If you don't have lips and you don't have cheeks, your teeth dry out," he says and adds, "You lose your teeth. You eventually lose your ability to even eat. You may have to eat through a tube in your stomach or be supplemented." You also use your ability to speak.

News reports say the patient can now talk coherently and is beginning to eat and drink without help.

Experts caution that even if the surgery turns out to be successful in the short term, the woman now has a slightly higher risk of cancer and will remain on drugs for life to suppress tissue rejection. The procedure was a partial transplant. Surgeons in the United States hope to perform a full-face transplant within a year.