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Neuron Discovery Transforms Scientist’s Beliefs
NEWSDAY -- When Dr. Ira Black realized he’d turned bone marrow cells into neurons, he took a deep breath and smiled. The transformation took place within minutes. But it took months of repeated experiments before he was ready to believe what was before his eyes.

“It was overwhelming,” said Black, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “It was beyond my wildest imagination.”

What was happening under his microscope goes against the dogma that guided him through his neuroscience training: Cells had certain fixed fates. Mesodermal cells found in bone marrow turn into bone, cartilage, fat and muscle. Never a neuron. Ectodermal cells give rise to nerve cells.

But Black’s finding, reported in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, has been confirmed by a handful of other laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies are hot in pursuit of what Black says is a “remarkable and totally unexpected finding.”

If bone marrow stem cells could be cultured to become neurons, it represents an abundant reservoir of brain cells that could be used to treat a number of degenerating brain conditions -- from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s.

“You can watch a flat, undistinguished stem cell round up and become characteristically refractile to light, extend its processes, and assume the physical appearance of a nerve cell,” said Black.

Stem cells are immature cells whose fates have yet to be realized. It has long been assumed that the origin of the stem cells in the body determines what a cell will become. For instance, stem cells in the bone marrow will produce blood cells, as well as cells that make up bone, cartilage, fat and muscle. Similarly, stem cells from the central nervous system should, in theory, give rise only to cells that make up the brain and spinal cord.

Studies Split on Heart-Hormone Therapy Value
NEWSDAY -- Hormone replacement therapy does not prevent the progression of coronary artery disease in affected women, according to one study reported Thursday, but another finds HRT lowering the overall incidence of heart disease in women.

Few debates in medicine are more complicated than the one centered on whether women should take postmenopausal hormones. And the continuing saga of whether HRT helps the heart will not conclude with the medical investigations reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Taken together, the studies underscore the complexities of coronary artery disease and reveal how much more doctors need to know about HRT.

Researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, for example, report that women with diseased coronary arteries -- atherosclerosis -- experienced no benefit from hormone replacement. This study follows another reported earlier this year, showing no cardiac benefit in staving off heart disease, which kills about a half million American women annually.

“It is clear now that estrogen is not as beneficial as we once hoped. And the entire story of estrogen and heart disease is far more complicated than we once thought,” said Dr. David Herrington of Wake Forest and lead investigator of the study.

In short, his study found that postmenopausal hormone replacement is not a magic bullet. Hormones do not prevent the progression of coronary artery disease, something doctors thought to be true based on patient observations and anecdotal evidence.

He and his colleagues examined the role of hormones tested against placebos in more than 300 women whose atherosclerosis was verified through angiograms. Some received 0.625 milligrams of estrogen per day, or 0.625 milligrams of estrogen plus medroxyprogesterone (a synthetic progesterone), or an inert pill.

California Poised to Approve Expanded Financial Aid Program
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- California is poised to adopt the largest state financial aid program in the United States, one that would offer hefty sums to all qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates, even those with just a C-average.

Under terms of an agreement announced by Gov. Gray Davis and legislative leaders and expected to go to a vote in the state Legislature in coming days, California would vastly expand its existing Cal Grants program to provide tens of thousands more students the money to go to college.

The measure would also guarantee grants to cover college fees for many middle-class high school graduates who make better-than-average grades, and give extra help to community college transfer students. As many as a third of all California’s high school graduates could eventually benefit, state officials said.

In essence, the state would be promising high school students that if they get a B-average, the state will help them afford college fees, and even if they can only manage C’s, they will at least get a shot at a higher education. The plan is expected to at least double the number of people who receive state aid and end the state’s practice of rationing grants in lean budget years.

It would be a program sharply at odds with recent national trends in college financial aid, which have tended to favor wealthier students. In committing to help poor students afford college, California would be revisiting education policies of the post-Civil Rights era.

In California, “income is not going to be impediment to college -- not just in theory, but as a matter of statutory right,” said John Mockler, Davis’ interim secretary of education.

By guaranteeing aid, said state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the state will be attempting to create a new college-going culture in high schools. “No longer will kids think, ‘What difference does it make? I can’t afford to go to college,’ ” he said.

The measure will take effect next year and could cost an estimated $1.2 billion yearly by 2006.