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Scientists making strides in West Nile treatment

Finally, summer is just around the corner. Unfortunately, the nasty West Nile virus isn't far behind.

Since it made its North American debut in 1999, 16,000 people have been sickened by the mosquito-spread virus and more than 600 have died.

There isn't yet a vaccine to ward off the illness, but researchers appear to be making headway on promising treatments. They have found that antibodies taken from the blood of people who recovered from West Nile fever can cure mice infected with the virus. Of course, using antibodies derived from human blood poses risks of its own: The blood might harbour other dangerous infectious agents.

So, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis joined forces with Macrogenics Inc. to produce a lab-manufactured version of the antibodies. They tested the so-called monoclonal antibodies on mice. It seemed to do the trick. The results were published in the journal Nature Medicine.

It will take a lot more time and research to determine if the therapy is also safe and effective for people. Sadly, that means the paranoid among us -- count me in their ranks -- will have to put on protective clothing and bug repellant for another mosquito season.

Along with the chemical DEET, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday recommended two new ingredients for avoiding bug bites: a chemical called picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Bug tips from the Public Health Agency of Canada are posted on its web site:

Going down for air

If you feel a bit lightheaded or ill on your next flight, you could be suffering from oxygen deprivation. More than half of airline passengers experience a significant drop in oxygen levels in their blood, according to a study published in the British-based journal Anaesthesia.

"We believe that these falling oxygen levels, together with factors such as dehydration, immobility and low humidity, could contribute to illness during and after flights," researcher Dr. Susan Humphreys of the Royal Group of Hospitals in Belfast said.

The new study follows earlier concerns about so-called economy-class syndrome, potentially deadly blood clots triggered by sitting too long in a cramped seat.

Researchers tested the blood of 84 passengers, ages 1 to 78, while on the ground and in the air. "The oxygen levels of 54 per cent of our subjects fell to less than 94 per cent at maximum altitude," said Dr. Humphreys.

The drop in oxygen levels may be caused by the fact that the cabin pressure is less than the atmospheric pressure on the ground.

Sibling autism research

Canadian researchers believe they have pinpointed 16 early warning signs of autism and intend to use them for diagnosing the disorder in a study involving babies who are younger siblings of children with the condition.

"Our hope is that it will lead to the development of new and earlier treatments that could make a huge difference for these children," said Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum of McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies in Hamilton, Ont.

Children with autism exhibit severe impairments in social interaction and often engage in repetitive, solitary activities. The researchers' 16 early warning signs include behaviour such as not smiling in response to the smiles of others. Their checklist, published in the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, is being put to the test in households with a family history of the disorder.

Painful parting

Lethal injection has become the most common way of carrying

out death sentences in the United States, partly because of the

perception that this means of

execution is relatively painless and humane.

But after reviewing prison records and autopsy reports, U.S. researchers concluded the "current practice of lethal injection

for execution fails to meet veterinary standards for putting down animals."

Lethal injection generally consists of sodium thiopental for anesthesia, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart and cause death. This deadly cocktail is often administered by technicians, without training in anesthesia.

The research team, led by Leonidas Koniaris of the University of Miami, obtained the autopsy reports of 49 prisoners and found that 43 of them lacked a sufficient amount of anesthetic. But no one would know if the condemned were conscious because they were also injected with a paralyzing agent, the researchers report in The Lancet.

"It would be a cruel way to die," says a commentary with the study. "Awake, paralyzed, unable to move, to breathe, while potassium burned through your veins."

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