Scientists, public tour new MU biocontainment lab

Sunday, November 16, 2008 | 5:06 p.m. CST; updated 10:53 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 16, 2008

This story has been updated to reflect that smallpox will not be one of the diseases studied at the biocontainment lab.

COLUMBIA — It was a wet, numbing day but more than 85 people, including members of the public and scientists, braved the Saturday morning weather to witness the dedication of MU's $18.4 million Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, off East Campus Drive.

"The facility had evoked some public concern, and we have an opportunity today to answer any questions and show why the facility is incredibly safe," said laboratory director George Stewart.


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The public and the scientists were given a tour of a portion of the building after the dedication.

The unassuming red-and-gray structure, hedged in by the Swine Center, several campus facility sheds and residential houses, is supposed to have some of the highest safety levels required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for labs studying biological agents and toxins that could pose a threat to public health and safety, such as anthrax and plague. The MU laboratory will support applied research and will develop vaccines, therapeutics, antibiotics and diagnostics against contagious diseases.  

The lab is expected to start operation in the spring, after the CDC checks its biosafety and biosecurity standards in December.

The laboratory will bring together the School of Medicine, the College of Veterinary Medicine and and the division of biological sciences. It will also collaborate with research institutes in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and elsewhere in Missouri to form a network of research facilities.

Stewart said the lab will initially house bacteria causing plague, anthrax and Q fever. Researchers at the lab will also study West Nile virus and tularemia bacteria, both of which are found in Missouri.

"Sometimes research on rodents will be necessary to test (the) efficacy of our potential vaccines or therapeutics," said Deborah Anderson, associate director of the MU Regional Biocontainment Laboratory and assistant professor in department of veterinary pathobiology.

The 10,000-square-foot lab is in addition to an existing 1,000 square feet of a similar facility at MU's Life Sciences Center.

"It's an incredible opportunity to study emerging infectious diseases and zoonotic pathogens," Stewart said. Zoonotic pathogens are microorganisms that can be transmitted from animals to humans and sometimes vice versa. 

The lab is expected to generate 25 to 30 jobs, including those for facility personnel, researchers and lab assistants, Anderson said. Students will also be involved.

"These will include new recruits as well as people from campus," she said. "While we might not be recruiting international researchers or scholars directly, it is possible that international scientists might participate in the research efforts at the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory."

MU's resources in terms of faculty and its location between two large cities makes the lab unique among the country's 13 similar facilities, Anderson said. The university received a $13.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for the lab. MU contributed $5 million.

The university's application for a biosecurity level 3 biocontainment laboratory was favorably reviewed by a panel of experts, said Rona Hirschberg, senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Biosecurity level 3 is a measure of security and refers to facilities housing pathogens for which some form of treatment is available.

The engineering controls in place for the biosafety and research capabilities made MU one of the top applicants, Hirschberg said.

The lab is designed to provide:

  • high levels of biosecurity to prevent theft of infectious agents;
  • biocontainment to prevent cross-level contamination;
  • and biosafety to protect people and the environment.

Everyone working at the facility will have to undergo federal government background checks and training.

"A person will never work alone (here). All work is done with at least two people present," said Michael Kurilla, director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs at the National Institutes of Health. All entries and exits will be recorded.

The building has multiple air filters in place to check air as it leaves or enters the building. Facility administrators have the ability to isolate individual laboratories. All biological work will be done in safety cabinets under negative air pressure to prevent air exchange between the cabinets and the lab. Autoclaves will make sure that all equipment and clothing are sterilized. 

The lab will also work with adjoining hospitals and the city of Columbia to be prepared for any emergency, said Paul Anderson, the laboratory's facility manager. Researchers will wear  dedicated clothing for their work.

The research units in the two-story facility are located in the first floor, with several labs per suite. The second floor houses the rigorous maintenance systems that control air filtration.

The facility draws electricity from the university power plant and has a back-up battery and generator with enough fuel for two weeks, Stewart said. It also has its own boiler, which runs on both fuel oil and natural gas, to supply steam in case the steam pressure drops.

Despite the discussion of safety and security, as well as public tours of the facility, the lab fell short of reassuring some members of the public, including Robin Remington, who actively opposed a proposal by MU for a biosecurity level 4 laboratory, which would have handled the most potentially dangerous pathogens. .

"It is important to have an ongoing dialogue between the lab's director and people in charge and people in the community on safety, access and transparency," Remington said.

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