A colored 3-D MRI scan of the brain's white matter pathways traces connections between cells in the cerebrum and the brainstem.
(Tom Barrick, Chris Clark, SGHMS / Science Source)
April 02, 2013

Obama's Plan to Explore the Brain a 'Most Audacious Project'

President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain.

In a speech Tuesday, Obama said he will ask Congress for $100 million in 2014 to "better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember." Other goals include finding new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative would accomplish this by developing tools that would allow researchers to monitor millions or even billions of individual neurons as they interact to form thoughts or create memories.

It's an amazingly ambitious idea, says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. "To understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you can imagine," he says. "It's the most complicated structure in the known universe."

 

 

The technologies that allow scientists to watch the brain at work are advancing with amazing speed, Collins says, so he thinks it's the right time to take a chance.

"Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach," he says. "Five years from now it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity."

Collins was the federal scientist in charge of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. But he says this initiative is a bit different because it won't be clear when the job is done.

People are remarkably similar genetically, so researchers can learn a lot about all people by looking at the genetic sequences of just a few, says David Van Essen of Washington University in St. Louis. But with human brains, he says, "the differences are vastly greater."

And trying to keep track of every one of the brain's nearly 100 billion neurons may be unrealistic, says Van Essen, who is also principle investigator of the Human Connectome Project, an NIH-funded effort to map connections in the human brain. But he says it is likely that researchers will be able to monitor smaller brains, like those found in fruit flies or mice.

Scientists involved in creating the BRAIN initiative say it could provide some really helpful research tools even if it falls short of some goals.

"What's going on in the brain is like a conversation between thousands of neurons all at once," says John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. "So the tools we need are the ability to pick up many, many cells at the same time. And you have to pick them up so you can hear each conversation very clearly."

Donoghue says the ability to do that would make a big difference in his own efforts to allow paralyzed people to control a robotic arm as if it were their own. "We know enough to get crude approximations," he says. "But if we really understood the brain's language, the brain's code, we could potentially recreate everything you do with your own arm."

The BRAIN initiative also could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease and perhaps new treatments, says Guy Eakin, vice president for scientific affairs at the BrightFocus Foundation, which supports research on Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma.

For example, Eakin says, some research indicates that Alzheimer's spreads from cell to cell in the brain, using the connections between cells. With a better understanding of those connections, he says, "perhaps we can identify interventions that would stop that spreading."

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A computer screen is pictured prior to a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, July 4, 2012.
(Denis Balibouse/AP)
March 14, 2013

Scientists Believe They Found God Particle

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider say the particle outlined in July 2012 looks increasingly to be a Higgs boson.

The Higgs, long theorised as the means by which particles get their mass, had been the subject of a decades-long hunt at the world's particle accelerators.

Yet there is still some uncertainty as to whether the particle is indeed a Higgs, and if so, what type it is.

Results at the Moriond meeting in Italy suggest strongly that the particle's "spin" is consistent with a Higgs.

Teams from the two Higgs-hunting experiments, Atlas and CMS, analysed two-and-a-half times more data than were available in July in an effort to pin down not only the particle's existence, but also something about its character.

All that is conclusively established is that the particle is in the family of bosons, but researchers had been careful since July to describe it as "Higgs-like".
'New story'

The zoo of subatomic particles are characterised by properties including their "spin" and "parity" - and the precise establishment of these properties for the new particle will determine if it is beyond doubt the long-sought Higgs.

What is more, theories predict that a number of different types of Higgs may exist.

The simplest form - that which fits neatly into the existing Standard Model of particle physics - would surely shore up the theory, but the possible existence of more "exotic" versions of the particle would open exciting new vistas in science.

"This is the start of a new story of physics," said Tony Weidberg, Oxford University physicist and a collaborator on the Atlas experiment.

"Physics has changed since July the 4th - the vague question we had before was to see if there was anything there," he told BBC News.

"Now we've got more precise questions: is this particle a Higgs boson, and if so, is it one compatible with the Standard Model?"

The results reported at the conference - based on the entire data sets from 2011 and 2012 - much more strongly suggest that the new particle's "spin" is zero - consistent with any of the theoretical varieties of Higgs.

"The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is," said CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela.

As is often the case in particle physics, a fuller analysis of data will be required to establish beyond doubt that the particle is a Higgs of any kind. But Dr Weidberg said that even these early hints were compelling.

"This is very exciting because if the spin-zero determination is confirmed, it would be the first elementary particle to have zero spin," he said.

"So this is really different to anything we have seen before."

Even more data will be required to explore the question of more "exotic" Higgs particles.

A popular but as-yet unsubstantiated theory called supersymmetry suggests there should be as many as five Higgs particles - a notion that will have to remain speculative at least until new data are acquired after the LHC's two-year shutdown for refurbishment.

The Standard Model and the Higgs boson

 

• The Standard Model is the simplest set of ingredients - elementary particles - needed to make up the world we see in the heavens and in the laboratory

• Quarks combine together to make, for example, the proton and neutron - which make up the nuclei of atoms today - though more exotic combinations were around in the Universe's early days

• Leptons come in charged and uncharged versions. Electrons - the most familiar charged lepton - together with quarks make up all the matter we can see; the uncharged leptons are neutrinos, which rarely interact with matter

• The "force carriers" are particles whose movements are observed as familiar forces such as those behind electricity and light (electromagnetism) and radioactive decay (the weak nuclear force)

• The Higgs boson came about because although the Standard Model holds together neatly, nothing requires the particles to have mass; for a fuller theory, the Higgs - or something else - must fill in that gap


February 27, 2013

Study: Younger Women Have Rising Rate Of Advanced Breast Cancer

Researchers say more young American women are being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.

It's a newly recognized trend. The numbers are small, but it's been going on for a generation. And the trend has accelerated in recent years.

The discovery had unusual origins in a Houston book group about seven years ago. Three of the women in the group were diagnosed with breast cancer. Alison Henning, a geologist and mother of two young boys, was one of them.

"The fact that I know two other people in my circle of friends who've been diagnosed with breast cancer under 40 is amazing," Henning tells Shots. "I mean, it's ridiculous in an otherwise very healthy population."

One of the women was Dr. Rebecca Johnson, who was diagnosed at age 27. She's now a pediatric cancer specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital.

Johnson kept in touch with Henning after she moved to Seattle, and she wondered about the bigger picture.

"The going wisdom is that breast cancer is uncommon in young women compared to older women," Johnson says. "But I wondered how common it actually was."

She's not the only one.

"There was an impression among doctors who treat women with breast cancer that they were seeing more young women who had advanced disease," Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society tells Shots.

But apparently, no one ever investigated.

Johnson decided to do a national study. It's published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It found that metastatic breast cancer — disease that spread to the bones or other organs — tripled in incidence among women younger than 40 between 1976 and 2009. These are women whose cancer had already spread by the time it was diagnosed.

But the actual numbers are small. About 800 women younger than 40 are being diagnosed with advanced cancer nowadays, compared with 250 a year in the mid-1970s.

The research has uncovered other troubling things. Incidence has gone up fastest in younger women — ages 25 to 34. The trend affects women of all ethnic backgrounds, in rural areas as well as cities, and it has been accelerating in recent years.

What does Johnson think this all means? "Well, it suggests to us that the trend is real. And it certainly suggests that the acceleration is happening at an exponential rate," she says. "It tells us nothing about why the increase is occurring, of course."

Lichtenfeld, who is the cancer society's deputy chief medical officer, says one thing that famously distinguishes women of this generation is that they've been delaying childbirth. And most of the cancer increase involves tumors that are sensitive to the hormone estrogen, levels of which soar during pregnancy.

"There is some thinking on our part that this is related to perhaps delay in childbirth or to the actual effects of pregnancy itself in this age group," he says. "That may have something to do with the hormonal relationship."

Lichtenfeld says another possible cause is toxic chemicals in the environment. Or possibly increasing obesity — though obesity in adolescents and young women may actually protect against breast cancer.

Lichtenfeld says women shouldn't overreact to these findings.

"When people hear about research like this, they tend to become far more concerned than the numbers reflect," he says. "These are very small numbers. Yes, this is a very serious problem for women impacted by this disease and their families."

But he says scientists should and will investigate what's going on.

"When we see trends that continue to increase over time, we have to be concerned," Lichtenfeld says.

And Henning, the Houston woman who helped inspire the study, says young women should pay attention.

"If you think that something's wrong or feels funny, follow through yourself," she says. "Don't allow your doctors to dismiss it just based on your age. You have to be your own advocate."

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woman sleeping
(RelaxingMusic/flickr)
February 26, 2013

Bad Sleep 'Dramatically' Alters Body

A run of poor sleep can have a potentially profound effect on the internal workings of the human body, say UK researchers.

The activity of hundreds of genes was altered when people's sleep was cut to less than six hours a day for a week.

Writing in the journal PNAS, the researchers said the results helped explain how poor sleep damaged health.

Heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all been linked to substandard sleep.

What missing hours in bed actually does to alter health, however, is unknown.

So researchers at the University of Surrey analysed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week, and compared the results with samples after a week of fewer than six hours a night.

More than 700 genes were altered by the shift. Each contains the instructions for building a protein, so those that became more active produced more proteins - changing the chemistry of the body.

Meanwhile the natural body clock was disturbed - some genes naturally wax and wane in activity through the day, but this effect was dulled by sleep deprivation.

Prof Colin Smith, from the University of Surrey, told the BBC: "There was quite a dramatic change in activity in many different kinds of genes."

Areas such as the immune system and how the body responds to damage and stress were affected.

Prof Smith added: "Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur - hinting at what may lead to ill health.

"If we can't actually replenish and replace new cells, then that's going to lead to degenerative diseases."

He said many people may be even more sleep deprived in their daily lives than those in the study - suggesting these changes may be common.

Dr Akhilesh Reddy, a specialist in the body clock at the University of Cambridge, said the study was "interesting".

He said the key findings were the effects on inflammation and the immune system as it was possible to see a link between those effects and health problems such as diabetes.

The findings also tie into research attempting to do away with sleep, such as by finding a drug that could eliminate the effects of sleep deprivation.

Dr Reddy said: "We don't know what the switch is that causes all these changes, but theoretically if you could switch it on or off, you might be able to get away without sleep.

"But my feeling is that sleep is fundamentally important to regenerating all cells."


Rodinia
February 25, 2013

Ancient Continent Discovered Under Indian Ocean

Fragments of an ancient continent are buried beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean, a study suggests.

Researchers have found evidence for a landmass that would have existed between 2,000 and 85 million years ago.

The strip of land, which scientists have called Mauritia, eventually fragmented and vanished beneath the waves as the modern world started to take shape.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Supercontinent

Until about 750 million years ago, the Earth's landmass was gathered into a vast single continent called Rodinia.

And although they are now separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean, India was once located next to Madagascar.

Now researchers believe they have found evidence of a sliver of continent - known as a microcontinent - that was once tucked between the two.

The team came to this conclusion after studying grains of sand from the beaches of Mauritius.

While the grains dated back to a volcanic eruption that happened about nine million years ago, they contained minerals that were much older.

Professor Trond Torsvik, from the University of Oslo, Norway, said: "We found zircons that we extracted from the beach sands, and these are something you typically find in a continental crust. They are very old in age."

The zircon dated to between 1,970 and 600 million years ago, and the team concluded that they were remnants of ancient land that had been dragged up to the surface of the island during a volcanic eruption.

Prof Torsvik said that he believed pieces of Mauritia could be found about 10km down beneath Mauritius and under a swathe of the Indian Ocean.

It would have spanned millions years of history, from the Precambrian Era when land was barren and devoid of life to the age when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

But about 85m years ago, as India started to drift away from Madagascar towards its current location, the microcontinent would have broken up, eventually disappearing beneath the waves.

However, a small part could have survived.

"At the moment the Seychelles is a piece of granite, or continental crust, which is sitting practically in the middle of the Indian Ocean," explained Prof Torsvik.

"But once upon a time, it was sitting north of Madagascar. And what we are saying is that maybe this was much bigger, and there are many of these continental fragments that are spread around in the ocean."

Further research is needed to fully investigate what remains of this lost region.

Prof Torsvik explained: "We need seismic data which can image the structure... this would be the ultimate proof. Or you can drill deep, but that would cost a lot of money."


Lawrence Bonassar
(AP Photo/Lindsay France, Cornell University)
February 21, 2013

Scientists Use 3-D Printing to Help Grow An Ear

Printing out body parts? Cornell University researchers showed it's possible by creating a replacement ear using a 3-D printer and injections of living cells.

The work reported Wednesday is a first step toward one day growing customized new ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who lose one to accident or disease.

It's part of the hot field of tissue regeneration, trying to regrow all kinds of body parts. Scientists hope using 3-D printing technology might offer a speedier method with more lifelike results.

If it pans out, "this enables us to rapidly customize implants for whoever needs them," said Cornell biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar, who co-authored the research published online in the journal PLoS One.

This first-step work crafted a human-shaped ear that grew with cartilage from a cow, easier to obtain than human cartilage, especially the uniquely flexible kind that makes up ears. Study co-author Dr. Jason Spector of Weill Cornell Medical Center is working on the next step — how to cultivate enough of a child's remaining ear cartilage in the lab to grow an entirely new ear that could be implanted in the right spot.

Wednesday's report is "a nice advancement," said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who wasn't involved in the new research.

Three-dimensional printers, which gradually layer materials to form shapes, are widely used in manufacturing. For medicine, Atala said the ear work is part of broader research that shows "the technology now is at the point where we can in fact print these 3-dimensional structures and they do become functional over time."

Today, people who need a new ear often turn to prosthetics that require a rod to fasten to the head. For children, doctors sometimes fashion a new ear from the stiffer cartilage surrounding ribs, but it's a big operation. Spector said the end result seldom looks completely natural. Hence the quest to use a patient's own cells to grow a replacement ear.

The Cornell team started with a 3-D camera that rapidly rotates around a child's head for a picture of the existing ear to match. It beams the ear's geometry into a computer, without the mess of a traditional mold or the radiation if CT scans were used to measure ear anatomy.

"Kids aren't afraid of it," said Bonassar, who used his then-5-year-old twin daughters' healthy ears as models.

From that image, the 3-D printer produced a soft mold of the ear. Bonassar injected it with a special collagen gel that's full of cow cells that produce cartilage — forming a scaffolding. Over the next few weeks, cartilage grew to replace the collagen. At three months, it appeared to be a flexible and workable outer ear, the study concluded.

Now Bonassar's team can do the process even faster by using the living cells in that collagen gel as the printer's "ink." The 3-D technology directly layers the gel into just the right ear shape for cartilage to cover, without having to make a mold first.

The next step is to use a patient's own cells in the 3-D printing process. Spector, a reconstructive surgeon, is focusing on children born without a fully developed external ear, a condition called microtia. They have some ear cartilage-producing cells in that tissue, just not enough. So he's experimenting with ways to boost those cells in the lab, "so we can grow enough of them from that patient to make an ear," he explained.

That hurdle aside, cartilage may be the tissue most amenable to growing with the help of 3-D printing technology, he said. That's because cartilage doesn't need blood vessels growing inside it to survive.


a mosquito
(Mark Duncan/AP)
February 21, 2013

Mosquitoes Ignore Repellent Deet After First Exposure

The widely used insect repellent Deet appears to be losing its effectiveness against mosquitoes, scientists say.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine say mosquitoes are first deterred by the substance, but then later ignore it.

They say more research is needed to find alternatives to Deet, which was first developed by the US military.

The research was carried out on Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito that spreads dengue and yellow fever.

The findings are published in the journal Plos One.

Dr James Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "The more we can understand about how repellents work and how mosquitoes detect them, the better we can work out ways to get around the problem when they do become resistant to repellents."

Human bait

Deet - or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide - is one of the most widely used active ingredients in insect repellents. It was developed by the US military, following its experience of jungle warfare during World War II.

Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly”

Dr James Logan London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

For many years, it was not clear exactly how the chemical worked, but recent research suggests that insects simply do not like the smell.

However, there are concerns that some mosquitoes are growing resistant to it.

To find out more, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took some A. aegypti mosquitoes in the laboratory, and tempted them with a human arm covered in Deet.

As expected, the repellent put the insects off their potential meal.

However, a few hours later when the same mosquitoes were offered a chance to dine again, the researchers found that the Deet was less effective.

To investigate why this might be happening, the researchers attached electrodes to the insects' antenna.

Dr Logan explained: "We were able to record the response of the receptors on the antenna to Deet, and what we found was the mosquitoes were no longer as sensitive to the chemical, so they weren't picking it up as well.

"There is something about being exposed to the chemical that first time that changes their olfactory system - changes their sense of smell - and their ability to smell Deet, which makes it less effective."

Arms race

Earlier research by the same team found that genetic changes to the same species of mosquito can make them immune to Deet, although it was not clear if there were any mosquitoes like this in the wild.

Dr Logan said it was vital to understand both these permanent genetic and temporary olfactory changes that were taking place.

He said: "Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly."

He stressed that the findings should not stop people from using Deet in high risk areas, but that they would help scientists who are trying to find new versions that could be effective.

To follow up on the study, the researchers now plan to find out how long the effect lasts after the initial exposure to the chemical.

The team would also like to study the effect in other mosquitoes, including the species that transmit malaria.


meteorite damage in Russia
(Oleg Kargapolov/AP)
February 15, 2013

Meteor Strike Injures Hundreds in Russia

A meteor crashing in Russia's Ural mountains has injured at least 950 people, as the shockwave blew out windows and rocked buildings.

Most of those hurt, in the Chelyabinsk region where the meteor fell, suffered cuts and bruises but at least 46 remain in hospital.

A fireball streaked through the clear morning sky, followed by loud bangs.

President Vladimir Putin said he thanked God no big fragments had fallen in populated areas.

A large meteor fragment landed in a lake near Chebarkul, a town in Chelyabinsk region.

The meteor's dramatic passing was witnessed in Yekaterinburg, 200km (125 miles) to the north, and in Kazakhstan, to the south.

"It was quite extraordinary," Chelyabinsk resident Polina Zolotarevskaya told BBC News. "We saw a very bright light and then there was a kind of a track, white and yellow in the sky."

"The explosion was so strong that some windows in our building and in the buildings that are across the road and in the city in general, the windows broke."

Officials say a large meteor partially burned up in the lower atmosphere, resulting in fragments falling earthwards.

Thousands of rescue workers have been dispatched to the area to provide help to the injured, the emergencies ministry said.

The Chelyabinsk region, about 1,500km (930 miles) east of Moscow, is home to many factories, a nuclear power plant and the Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre.

'Blinding'

Chelyabinsk's health department said 985 people had sought medical treatment, including 204 children, Russia's Interfax news agency reports. Two people in the town of Kopeysk were in a serious condition, it added.

The governor of Chelyabinsk region, Mikhail Yurevich, was quoted elsewhere as saying 950 people had been hurt, two seriously.

Mr Putin promised "immediate" aid for people affected, saying kindergartens and schools had been damaged, and work disrupted at industrial enterprises.

Many children were at lessons when the meteor fell at around 09:20 (03:20 GMT).

Video posted online showed frightened, screaming youngsters at one Chelyabinsk school, where corridors were littered with broken glass.

Chelyabinsk resident Sergei Serskov told BBC News the city had felt like a "war zone" for 20 to 30 minutes.

"I was in the office when suddenly I saw a really bright flash in the window in front of me," he said.

"Then I smelt fumes. I looked out the window and saw a huge line of smoke, like you get from a plane but many times bigger."

"A few minutes later the window suddenly came open and there was a huge explosion, followed by lots of little explosions."

In Yekaterinburg, 36-year-old resident Viktor Prokofiev was driving to work when he witnessed the event.

"It was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"I felt like I was blinded by headlights."

Debris also reportedly fell on the west Siberian region of Tyumen.

Governor Yurevich reported that the meteor had landed in a lake 1km outside Chebarkul, which has a population of 46,000.

A Russian army spokesman said a crater 6m (20ft) wide had been found on the shore of the lake.

Asteroid coincidence

The Russian Academy of Sciences estimates that the meteor weighed about 10 tonnes and entered the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of at least 54,000 km/h (33,000mph).

It would have shattered about 30-50km (18-32 miles) above ground, with most of the meteor burning up.

Scientists have played down suggestions that there is any link between the event in the Urals and 2012 DA14, an asteroid expected to race past the Earth on Friday at a distance of just 27,700km (17,200 miles) - the closest ever predicted for an object of that size.

Prof Alan Fitzsimmons, of the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast, said there was "almost definitely" no connection.

"One reason is that 2012 DA14 is approaching Earth from the south, and this object hit in the northern hemisphere," he told BBC News.

"This is literally a cosmic coincidence, although a spectacular one."

Such meteor strikes are rare in Russia but one is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250m) in Siberia in 1908.

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January 24, 2013

U of I Study Tries Stem-Cell Approach On Muscular Dystrophy

A University of Illinois researcher is experimenting with stem cells as a potential treatment for a common form of muscular dystrophy affecting boys.

Victims of Duchenne muscular dystrophy rarely survive to middle age, and the immediate cause of death is often a weakened heart muscle. 

U of I Comparative Biosciences Professor Suzanne Berry-Miller and her research team worked with mice with a similar form of the disease, to see if stem cell therapy could be an effective treatment. She took adult stem cells derived from the blood vessels of healthy mice and transplanted them into the hearts of mice with the dystrophy. She says their heart function improved from the transformation into heart cells--of either the transplanted stem cells or stem cells already in the heart and triggered by the transplants.

It would take a great deal of additional research, but Berry-Miller says she hopes her finding can one day lead to future modes of treatment.

"What could be a potential care later would be isolating those cells from the patient,  and then genetically correcting those cells from the patient and giving them back or taking those kind of stem cells from the heart of a healthy donor and giving those to a patient," said Berry-Miller.

Berry-Miller’s research is published in the new issue of the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.


October 31, 2012

State Approves Carle Emergency Expansion

The state of Illinois has signed off on Carle Foundation Hospital’s request to expand its emergency department, adding 14,000 square feet and 17 more acute beds.

Emergency Medicine Chair Greg Swindle says the area is in desperate need for more space, having to place 13 beds in the hallway.

He says the department is currently built for about 50,000 patients, and expects to see 70,000 this year.

"They don't have much privacy, needless to say, and there are people running up and down the halls," he said.  "I think it will provide for a little more efficient care, and less disruptions to the staff and to the patients as well."

Illinois’ Health Facilities and Services Review Board approved the work Tuesday after the Urbana hospital submitted the request in August.

Work is expected to start soon, with completion slated for 2014.  Cost of the expansion is estimated at $15-million.


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