April 15, 2009

Disease Fighters

New regional biosafety laboratory at the Cummings School redefines public health research

By Catherine O’Neill Grace

Investigators from Tufts University and around New England who are working on the frontline of the nation’s infectious disease research and medical biodefense programs now have a state-of-the-art regional biocontainment laboratory in which to conduct these critical public health inquiries.

The New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory, located in the Grafton Science Park on the campus of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Photo: Frank Giuliani

The New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory (NE-RBL), located in the Grafton Science Park on the campus of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., is a $31 million, 41,000-square-foot Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) and Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) facility, with space for 29 faculty and staff. Their mission: better detection, treatment and prevention of infectious diseases.

A chilly spring rain was falling on March 30 as federal, state and local dignitaries and the Cummings School community gathered to dedicate the NE-RBL. But, noted Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow, “It’s a beautiful day for science; it’s a beautiful day for public health.”

Scientists use biocontainment labs to study contagious diseases safely and effectively. The labs are designed not only to protect researchers from contamination, but also to prevent microorganisms from entering the environment. The NE-RBL at the Cummings School, which will be up and running early this summer, will serve as a resource for investigators from Tufts and other New England universities as well as the private sector. It is part of a network of 13 BSL-2 and BSL-3 biocontainment laboratories around the country. A $23 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a $9.5 million investment by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center funded most of the construction and equipment.

Tufts was chosen as the site for the laboratory through a competitive process. “The Tufts veterinary school and the Tufts medical school have always had a very strong program in enteric infections. The NIH recognition of this strength allowed us to compete successfully for this award,” says Saul Tzipori, director of the NE-RBL and head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Cummings School, which will conduct research in the lab. The division houses one of the nation’s leading research programs in food- and waterborne diseases, infections spread by mosquitoes and ticks and in diseases that animals transmit to people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigns biosafety levels to pathogens based on their ability to cause illness. A Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) lab studies disease agents that pose the smallest threat to human life and for which vaccines or cures are available.

In a BSL-2 lab, researchers are protected by lab coats and gloves. Security in a BSL-3 lab is high, and safety measures are intensive. The BSL-3 facilities at the NE-RBL could be used to study contagious agents such as West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, both of which are carried by infected mosquitoes. Tuberculosis, a global cause of illness and mortality for centuries, will also be studied.

To enter the BSL-3 lab, researchers must gain access with a security card and then a fingerprint reader; they’ll be required to shower and change into scrubs before entering the work space. To leave the lab, researchers must shower again and dispose of their protective clothing and equipment, which will be run through a high-temperature autoclave before disposal. Each lab is sealed, and air is drawn in from the corridor, to the anteroom, to the lab and then up into HEPA filters before being released unto the atmosphere. This intensive filtration process means the air leaving the laboratory is cleaner than the air outside.

The development of the regional biocontainment laboratory network is part of the NIH biodefense research program, undertaken in response to the anthrax attacks in 2001. Those attacks “were a sobering reminder that the threat of deliberately released microbes can be used as a form of terrorism,” Hugh Auchincloss, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of NIH, told a congressional oversight committee in 2007.

“Moreover, naturally occurring microbial outbreaks pose a serious threat to domestic and global health,” he said, citing the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic, which rapidly spread from the Guangdong province of China to 37 other countries, and the ongoing outbreaks of avian influenza and drug-resistant tuberculosis. These outbreaks, Auchincloss told the congressional committee, “have reminded us that defense against naturally emerging microbes must be a top national priority.”

In 2002, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases established a competitive program to fund the design, construction and commissioning of biocontainment laboratories around the country, from Massachusetts to Hawaii, to conduct research on pathogens.

Why locate a BSL-3 facility at a veterinary school? In her remarks at the dedication, Deborah T. Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School, said that veterinary researchers bring special expertise to understanding infectious diseases, which kill 14 million to 17 million people around the world every year. Seventy percent of newly emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic—that is they move from both wild and domestic animals to humans.

“The great strengths of the central Massachusetts and greater Boston research communities are collegiality and cooperation,” Kochevar said. She and other Tufts officials are anticipating that the new facility will be the anchor tenant of the Grafton Science Park, a 100-acre parcel with 702,000 square feet of developable space where firms doing similar work can locate, providing new tax revenue for the town of Grafton and creating a critical mass of life-science researchers.

That collegiality was evident at the scientific symposium that followed the dedication of the NE-RBL, as scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the medical schools at Harvard, Boston University and the University of Massachusetts and the Cummings School presented their scholarly work.

“Major public health threats are a national security matter, whether they are political or from Mother Nature,” Michael Kurilla, director of the Office of Biodefense Research Activities at NIAID, said at the symposium. “The expectation for 21st-century science and medicine requires 21st-century facilities. You at Tufts have this facility now, and it will continue to push forward the frontiers of science.”

For more information about the NE-RBL, go to http://vet.tufts.edu/ne-rbl.

Catherine O’Neill Grace can be reached at catherine.grace@tufts.edu.

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