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Healthnotes: News on Ovarian Cancer, HIV Medication and Birth Defects - 2002-01-05

Healthnotes: A component in oral contraceptives could be the best protection against ovarian cancer. Garlic supplements neutralize some HIV medication. And air pollution can cause birth defects.

The hormone progestin an ingredient in birth control pills may help reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina examined the data of a 20-year old study involving 3,200 women who received oral contraceptives for a period of at least three months. The researchers say that those women who took pills high in progestin cut by half their risk of developing ovarian cancer, as compared to women who were taking birth control pills high in other hormones such as estrogen.

Dr. Gustavo Rodriguez, the study's leading researcher, found that progestin stimulates damaged cells on the ovary surface to self-destruct. Dr. Rodriguez says that the cells which are exposed to progestin produce higher amounts of a certain protein, called TGF-beta, which seems to prevent cancer cells from travelling in the body. He also found that the higher the amount of the TGF-beta protein in the ovaries, the lower the amount of damaged ovarian cells.

Dr. Rodriguez says that the new study shows that progestin is the most effective hormone against ovarian cancer - the fifth most common cancer among women.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health say that garlic supplements may reduce the efficacy of a treatment against HIV. Doctor Judith Falloon, senior researcher at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gave healthy volunteers the HIV medication 'Saquinavir' and tested the levels of the medication in their blood. Then, she gave the volunteers garlic supplements and tested again the levels of Saquinavir in their blood. She found that the levels of Saquinavir were much lower after the volunteers had taken garlic supplements. "Saquinavir is important in the HIV world because it is one of what's called a 'protease inhibitor', which is part of what now people think of as the cocktail the potent drugs that were developed in the late 1990s that have really made a huge difference in survival in people with HIV and AIDS," she says.

Dr. Falloon says that some HIV patients suffer from elevated cholesterol, a side- effect from HIV medications. Garlic has a reputation as a natural cholesterol fighter but it seems to neutralize the HIV medication Saquinavir. Dr. Falloon says that someone who is taking Saquinavir against HIV virus should not take garlic supplements.

A new study finds that air pollution may be the cause of some birth defects. Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles analyzed data on more than 9000 babies born in four different counties in California. The researchers compared the air quality near the homes of children born with birth defects to the air quality in the neighborhoods of children born healthy. They concluded that the risk of having children with birth defects was three times higher in the areas with the highest levels of ozone and carbon monoxide as compared to the areas with the cleanest air.

Leading researcher Beate Ritz, a UCLA epidemiologist, says that the more a pregnant woman is exposed to urban air pollutants, the greater the risk that her baby will be born with serious cardiac birth defects. He also says that pregnant women who live in air polluted areas are most vulnerable during the second month of their pregnancy a period when the heart and other organs begin to develop.

Dr. Ritz says that the findings have serious implications for all polluted urban centers in the world. Carbon monoxide is primarily released in tailpipe emissions, while ozone pollution is formed in the atmosphere from pollutants released by both vehicles and industrial sources.