Illinois Public Media News
Excavation work continues at the site that once housed a manufactured gas plant in Champaign.
Ameren Illinois is working on the corner of 5th and Hill Streets to clear soil that is suspected of having traces of the pollutant coal tar. Most of the work to remove the soil has taken place underneath a large protective tent, but on Thursday workers dug about three feet of dirt outside of the tent.
That sparked concerns from the health care advocacy group, Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group said a monitoring device that checks for dangerous chemicals went off, raising the possibility that nearby communities might be at risk.
"The vapors and the dust that comes up from this type of excavation are highly toxic and this is a highly irresponsible activity to do," the group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said.
But Ameren spokesperson Leigh Morris dismissed that claim, saying no air monitoring equipment recorded anything that would have raised health or safety concerns. Morris said both Ameren and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency were checking the excavation area Thursday with air monitoring equipment, which did not identify any red flags.
"There was never any type of a health concern," Morris explained. "There was some dust. The dust was caused from gravel. We did receive one complaint about that, and we watered the gravel down to end the dust problem."
The excavation happened on the edge of a gate, near two buildings used by the Center for Women in Transition. Site supervisor Jacob Blanton said there was no way the tent could have been moved with nearby power lines and a narrow alley in the way.
Morris said some additional digging outside of the protective tent will likely be performed in July.
Back in April, Champaign agreed to plug a pipe suspected of having dangerous chemicals near the Boneyard Creek, which extends to the site where the gas plant once stood. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said there is no evidence to suggest coal tar has made its way from the plant into the pipeline.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
They're not cures, but two novel drugs produced unprecedented gains in survival in separate studies of people with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doctors reported Sunday.
In one study, an experimental drug showed so much benefit so quickly in people with advanced disease that those getting a comparison drug were allowed to switch after just a few months.
The drug, vemurafenib, targets a gene mutation found in about half of all melanomas. The drug is being developed by Genentech, part of Swiss-based Roche, and Plexxikon Inc., part of the Daiichi Sankyo Group of Japan.
The second study tested Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Yervoy, a just-approved medicine for newly diagnosed melanoma patients, and found it nearly doubled the number who survived at least three years.
"Melanoma has just seen a renaissance of new agents," and more are being tested, said Dr. Allen Lichter, chief executive of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The new studies were presented Sunday at the oncology group's annual meeting in Chicago and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
"This is really an unprecedented time of celebration for our patients," said Dr. Lynn Schuchter, of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center. The new drugs are not by themselves cures, but "the future is going to be to build upon the success" by testing combinations of these newer drugs, she said.
Melanoma is on the rise. There were 68,000 new cases and 8,700 deaths from it in the United States last year, the American Cancer Society estimates. Only two drugs had been approved to treat it, with limited effectiveness, until Yervoy, an immune-system therapy, won approval in March.
The experimental drug, vemurafenib, is aimed at a specific gene mutation, making it the first so-called targeted therapy for the disease. The drug got attention when a whopping 70 percent of those with the mutation responded to it in early safety testing.
The new study, led by Dr. Paul Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, was the key test of its safety and effectiveness. It involved 675 patients around the world with inoperable, advanced melanoma and the gene mutation. They received vemurafenib pills twice a day or infusions every three weeks of the chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.
After six months, 84 percent of people on vemurafenib were alive versus 64 percent of the others.
Less than 10 percent on the drug suffered serious side effects - mostly skin rashes, joint pain, fatigue, diarrhea and hair loss. About 18 percent of patients developed a less serious form of skin cancer. More than a third needed their dose adjusted because of side effects.
The study is continuing, and many remain on the drug, including one of Schuchter's patients: Brian Frantz, a 50-year-old former firefighter from Springfield, Va.
Within a week or two of starting on the drug in September, "we noticed an improvement" and shrinkage in his many tumors, he said. "It was just a miracle."
Schuchter said that's typical of how patients have responded to the drug.
"Within 72 hours, their symptoms improve, pain medicines can be reduced," she said.
The study is a landmark and the results are "very impressive" in people who historically have not fared very well, said Dr. April Salama, a Duke University melanoma specialist.
The study was sponsored by the drug's makers, and many of the researchers consult or work for them. The companies are seeking approval to sell the drug and a companion test for the gene mutation in the U.S. and Europe. A Genentech spokeswoman said the price has not yet been determined.
The other new drug, Yervoy, is not a chemotherapy but a treatment to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. Dr. Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan-Kettering led the first test of it in newly diagnosed melanoma patients.
About 502 of them received dacarbazine and half also got Yervoy. After one year, 47 percent of those on Yervoy were alive versus 36 percent of the others. At three years, survival was 21 percent with Yervoy versus 12 percent for chemotherapy alone.
Side effects included diarrhea, rash and fatigue. More than half on the new drug had major side effects versus one quarter of those on chemotherapy alone.
Bristol-Myers Squibb paid for the study and many researchers consult or work for the company. Treatment with Yervoy includes four infusions over three months and costs $30,000 per infusion.
New England Journal of Medicine: http://www.nejm.org
A Chicago-based scientist says he's grateful to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk for siding with legislation that backs stem cell research.
Kirk on Monday called for congressional action to codify an executive order on the research issued by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Dr. John Kessler directs a stem cell research institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He says Kirk is backing legislation that's "absolutely essential for the field'' because uncertainty over federal funding discourages young scientists from doing research on stem cells.
Kirk says stem cell research offers "the best promise'' to cure certain diseases. The Illinois Republican says, if senior Democratic senators choose not to move the stem cell legislation in this Congress, he will. He says court challenges to taxpayer-financed stem cell research make legislation necessary.
A study out, known as the Illinois Youth Survey, shows fewer Illinois teens are smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol at once, but the survey says marijuana use appears to be steady.
Beth Welbes with the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois said nationally, marijuana use is going up. She said the state findings show more teens are downplaying the risks associated with smoking marijuana.
"The state rates and the state estimates are really valuable, especially for state policy makers because they can take a look and they can see where do we need to direct our resources in terms of substance abuse prevention and other health areas," Welbes said.
The survey also reported a drop in DUIs among high school seniors, and a decrease in the use of illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine.
The FDA has approved a new drug for the treatment of hepatitis C, a viral disease that attacks the liver and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
In the U.S., existing medications cure only about 50 percent of patients.
Dr. Bruce Bacon of Saint Louis University led a clinical trial for the new drug, boceprevir.
Bacon says adding boceprevir to the standard two-drug treatment significantly improved cure rates, especially for patients who have been treated before and failed to recover.
Most Americans with hepatitis C have what's known as the genotype 1 form of the virus.
"The numbers are more like 20 percent with the standard therapy being retreated versus about 60 to 65 percent cure rate with the addition of boceprevir," Bacon said, referring to people with genotype 1.
A similar drug, telaprevir, is expected to get FDA approval by the end of the month.
Dr. Adrian Di Bisceglie, also from Saint Louis University, helped test how patients responded when telaprevir was added to the current two-drug treatment.
"In a treatment regimen that has telaprevir, the cure rates or rates of sustained virologic response go from the 40 percent number that I mentioned in patients with genotype 1, to 75 percent," Di Bisceglie said.
Both boceprevir (trade name Victrelis, by Merck) and telaprevir (trade name Incivek, by Vertex) are expected on the market in June.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than three million Americans have hepatitis C, and about three-quarters of them don't know they have it.
The head of five research facilities at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus says a name change has more to do with identity than anything else.
The Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability is now the Prairie Research Institute. Executive Director Bill Shilts says with the previous name, serving as home for five state surveys was often the source of confusion. But he said the new one ties facilities like the Illinois State Water Survey and Illinois Natural History Survey to others in the country, more closely identified with the Institute's mission.
And Shilts said the five surveys complement one another.
"This is a way to make all of the surveys related to that name," he said. "So that when one survey does something that's of value to the public, to the state, to the university, it reflects on all of the surveys rather than just the individual survey's name like it used to be when we were part of state government."
Shilts said being recognized as an institute with many different disciplines like water, geology, and biological resources gives his facilities a focus for the multi-disciplinary manner in which work is carried out.
The five surveys were established on the U of I campus in 2008, coming from Illinois' Department of Natural Resources. The name change was recently approved by the University's board of Trustees, but state legislators still have to approve it. The Prairie Research Institute has 700 employees and a 2010 budget of nearly $70-million.
The cicadas are coming ---- but not just the cicadas that can be heard every summer.
These are periodical cicadas that emerge from the ground for mating in 13 and 17 year cycles. This particular brood of 13-year cicada is known as the Great Southern Brood, or Brood XIX. And they will soon be seen and heard in the billions in a region that stretches from the southeast out to Missouri and Arkansas --- and includes central and southern Illinois.
University of Illinois entomologist James Appleby said you will know when the Great Southern Brood is here, by their mating song.
"Their song is referred to as the long, drawn-out word, 'Pharoah,'" Appleby said. "So they'll go, 'Phar-aoh, phar-aoh, phar-oah' - that's the song. And it's extremely loud when all these males emerge."
While the males make all the noise, the female cicadas do all the damage ... to the branches of trees where they lay their eggs. Appleby said mature trees usually survive the onslaught, but the cicadas can pose a risk to younger, smaller trees. With the huge numbers of cicadas expected, he says homeowners may want to take precautions.
"If you have a young tree that you just purchased this year, perhaps last year, to protect it, I think it would be a good idea to get some nylon meshing or some type of netting and just net the tree ... the branches, because that's where the females will deposit their eggs," said Appleby, who makes bi-monthly appearances on WILL's "Illinois Gardener".
Cicadas from the Great Southern Brood have already emerged from underground in many southern states. Locally, Appleby said he has already seen the chimney-like exit holes that cicadas make in preparation for their lives above-ground. They will die off in about five weeks, at which time their eggs will hatch, sending a brood of nymphs underground, to emerge in 2024.
When the space shuttle Endeavour takes its final flight it will carry the handiwork of a Chicago-area scientist.
The shuttle will carry six postage-stamp sized samples of thin films made from specially engineered materials called grapheme and carbon nanotubes. Astronauts will mount them on the International Space Station, where they'll stay for at least six months.
The idea is to see how the nanomaterials hold up to the powerful radiation in space, which can cook normal materials, like silicon, used in computers. Northwestern University professor Mark Hersam, who created the samples, said the stakes are high for electronics in space.
"If you had a system on your spacecraft being controlled by a computer and all the sudden it didn't compute correctly, that would lead to serious problems," Hersam said.
The Endeavour was set to blast off Friday afternoon in what was expected to be the second-to-last shuttle flight for NASA, but the flight's take off was put was hold due to a technical problem.
(Photo courtesy of Andrew Campbell/Northwestern University)
Researchers in Chicago are beginning a study Tuesday that they hope will extend the life of urban trees.
All those trees you see lining shady Chicago sidestreets actually have it pretty rough. Their average lifespan is less than ten years. That's compared to fifty or sixty years for their suburban cousins.
Bryant Scharenbroch is a soil scientist with the Morton Arboretum. He said all those city roads and buildings make soil too dense.
"When you compact the soil to make it suitable for infrastructure, you're also making it kind of a hostile environment for trees," he said."
So scientists are testing out biochar, a sort of super-heated charcoal made from plant matter. Ancient Amazonians were using biochar on their crops centuries ago, but its affects on trees haven't been widely studied, said researcher Kelby Fite, with Bartlet Tree Experts.
Biochar adds nutrients into the soil, like compost, but lasts a lot longer.
"So compost may degrade in a matter of a handful of years, whereas biochar could be stable for hundreds, or even thousands of years," Fite said.
The researchers will monitor sample trees in the Bucktown neighborhood for the next couple years.
Disappointment today at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, as the museum was snubbed in its bid to host one of the retiring space shuttles.
The Adler piped the NASA announcement live into its 3-D Universe Theater. The assembled crowd offered polite applause as the winning institutions were announced: museums in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC and Florida.
Adler president Paul Knappanberger offered congratulations, though said he was a bit perplexed by the New York museum's success. He says it's a missed opportunity for the planetarium.
"A shuttle would have been a game changer, I think," he told reporters. "It's a national treasure, it's an icon of American achievement. I don't think any other artifact approaches that icon status."
The Adler is expected to get one of those other artifacts as a consolation prize -- the shuttle flight simulator used to train NASA astronauts. It's reportedly three stories tall and replicates the shuttle's crew compartment. Knappenberger called it the "next best thing," and said the museum will likely build a new enclosure to hold it.
Knappenberger says the failed shuttle campaign was funded almost completely with donated money and services.
(Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons)
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