DIET TO LOWER CHOLESTEROL MAY INCLUDE RED MEAT

People with elevated blood cholesterol levels may be able to have their red meat and eat it, too: a new study suggests that small portions of very lean red meat can be part of a cholesterol-lowering diet.

Elevated blood cholesterol levels are closely linked to an increased risk of premature heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. People with total blood cholesterol levels above 200 milligrams per deciliter are advised to use diet, exercise and weight loss to help lower their risk of heart disease. As part of that effort, the National Cholesterol Education Program has developed a cholesterol-lowering diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It also includes fish and poultry without the skin, but very little red meat, which is thought to raise blood cholesterol levels.

To test whether lean red meat could be part of a cholesterol-lowering regimen, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the University of Minnesota and the Chicago Center for Clinical Research selected 191 men and women with mildly elevated blood cholesterol levels. The study was supported by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Participants were randomly assigned to eat a balanced, low-fat diet that included six ounces a day of lean red meat or six ounces a day of fish or poultry without the skin, five to seven days a week for the duration of the 36-week study. Six weeks prior to entering the study, participants discontinued taking all cholesterol-lowering medications.

Writing in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine, the researchers reported that both groups showed statistically identical declines in total blood cholesterol levels as well as in levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the most dangerous form of cholesterol. Triglyceride levels, another marker for heart disease, remained the same in both groups. Levels of high-density lipoprotein, a protective form of cholesterol, increased 2 percent in both groups.

"The cholesterol-lowering effects were identical among the two groups," said Michael H. Davidson, director of the Chicago Center for Clinical Research and lead author of the study.

The findings offer people with elevated cholesterol levels more food choices, provided that they consume small portions of very lean red meat. "We think that giving people more variety will mean better compliance with their diets," Davidson said. "We think it will make them more accepting of a low-fat diet."

--Sally Squires

NEW TYPE OF CHEMICAL TEST MAY CUT USE OF ANIMALS

A new scientific test can be used instead of live rabbits to determine whether chemicals are corrosive, according to a government-sponsored panel.

More than 2,000 new chemicals are marketed each year as ingredients in products ranging from household cleaners to pesticides, and federal law requires that each be tested for corrosiveness and skin irritation. Current rules require that the chemical be applied to the skin of three rabbits, and in some cases to rabbits' eyes as well.

A law passed in 1993 required the government to develop a process for developing and approving alternatives to animal testing, but the new test is only the second one to be endorsed for this purpose by a federally sponsored panel of scientists.

In some cases, the new test, called Corrositex, can eliminate the need for animal testing, said William S. Stokes, a veterinarian who is associate director for animal and alternative resources at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "If you use this test and it's positive, then the tester can make a decision to classify it as as corrosive without doing any further animal testing," he said.

With the old method, a chemical is applied to a rabbit's back, left there for four hours, and the skin is observed for ulceration. With the new test, the chemical is placed on a translucent, gel-like film made of collagen, a protein found in skin, and observed for four hours. A corrosive chemical will penetrate the collagen, drip into a fluid-filled tube below and cause a dye to change color.

Stokes said that if government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission accept Corrositex as an alternative test, manufacturers will be able to use it to screen out those chemicals that are likely to produce pain when tested on live animals. Chemicals judged corrosive by the new method would not need to be tested on rabbits' skin or eyes.

Those testing negative for corrosiveness would still have to be tested on animals to gauge their potential for causing skin irritation, but they would be less likely to cause suffering, Stokes said.

He said Corrositex, sold by In Vitro International of Irvine, Calif., is slightly less expensive than using live animals. The scientific panel's findings were published last week in the Federal Register.

--Susan Okie

AGE FOUND TO BE NO FACTOR IN CERVICAL CANCER DEATHS

For years doctors have assumed that young patients with cervical cancer are more likely to have a poorer outcome than older women diagnosed with the disease. But a study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine found the same death rates among different age groups.

The study, in the June issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, looked at the records of 2,000 women with cervical cancer that had been diagnosed between 1988 and 1990. The records were compiled by the National Cancer Institute. The researchers found that women under the age of 35 were generally diagnosed with cancer at an earlier stage--when it's more easily treated--than their older counterparts.

The researchers then looked at survival rates five years after diagnosis and found no significant differences in the groups.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 13,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year and 4,800 women will die of the disease. Mortality rates have been decreasing steadily in recent decades because many women have regular Pap tests to screen for the cancer.

--Lexie Verdon