One MU biolab under way

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The new level 3 MU Bio Lab, which is scheduled to be completed in 2008, will be used to study infectious diseases and allergies. If Columbia is chosen for a national level 4 laboratory, it will remain under the watch of the Department of Homeland Security.

While Columbia awaits word on whether it will become home to a federal laboratory to handle some of the world’s deadliest pathogens, a laboratory for the study of potentially lethal air-borne diseases is under construction on the MU campus.

The gray skeletal frame of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory can be seen through the treetops near the College of Veterinary Medicine on the southeast side of the MU campus. The new facility is known as a BSL-3, or biosafety level 3, and will be one of 13 such labs in the country that will study pathogens that could include anthrax, tularemia and the West Nile virus.

Biosafety levels

BSL-1: Labs follow basic safety procedures and study agents that do not consistently cause diseases in healthy adults but could. Examples of diseases studied are Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium commonly found in soil, and nonpathogenic E. coli. BSL-2: Labs study agents that would be a threat if they were directly exposed to the researcher by inhalation, swallowing or touching. Examples of diseases studied are the common cold and streptococcus viruses. BSL-3: Labs with extra safety precautions like a special ventilation system are used to study potentially lethal diseases that can be transmitted through air. Examples of diseases studied are West Nile virus, tularemia and anthrax. BSL-4: Research in these labs study life-threatening diseases that have no vaccine or therapy available, such as nipah virus and hendra virus. Researchers are required to wear protective suits and shower after leaving the lab.

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MU received $12 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to help pay for the project, while the university provided the balance, about $4.5 million.

Rona Hirschberg, the NIAID’s senior program officer, said MU was chosen for a regional laboratory because it has experience handling the potentially dangerous materials. She said the lab, which will be operated by the College of Veterinary Medicine, will help create vaccines and drugs for the diseases.

George Stewart, chairman of veterinary pathobiology at MU, said BSL-3 labs are fairly common; MU’s Life Science Center has a BSL-3 lab, and similar facilities are located in Jefferson City and Kansas City, he said. Stewart said the lab will also include more space for research.

Meanwhile, MU officials are waiting to learn from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security whether Columbia will become the home of a National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility on the south side of town, off New Haven Road. The city is one of 17 locations being considered by DHS, which is expected to announce a short list of finalists soon. Columbia’s bid, which has the backing of state and local economic development officials, has generated some opposition among residents because it will feature a BSL-4 lab to study life-threatening animal-borne diseases for which there are no cures or preventive vaccines.

BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories study some of the same pathogens and feature some of the same security measures, including high efficiency particulate air filters, or HEPA filters. Hirschberg said the filters are so fine that they can catch even small viruses.

“Nothing can leak in or out of them,” she said.

The labs will also employ a series of backup safety measures for filters and generators.

“If there’s a problem with one, there’s a backup system to make sure something doesn’t get out,” Stewart said.

Lab workers and visitors will be bound by a strict safety protocol. Workers’ training must be documented and validated on a regular basis, Stewart said.

“You have to first undergo an FBI background check before they are even allowed in the same room with the pathogens,” he said.

If Columbia is chosen for the national BSL-4 lab, the facility will be built on MU’s South Farm research complex. There are six BSL-4 labs in the U.S.; research is conducted under the watch of Homeland Security. BSL-4 personnel take extra precautions, such as showering upon exiting an area in which the pathogens are stored or studied. Workers change clothes when they enter the building, and don full-body, air-supplied, positive-pressure protective suits. BSL-4 facilities have dedicated air supply and exhaust, vacuum and decontamination systems.

While local residents have not made an issue of the BSL-3 under construction, security breaches have occurred at such facilities. On June 30, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended research at Texas A&M University’s National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense because the university did not report that three researchers had been exposed to the bacterium that causes Q fever, which is highly infectious but rarely deadly.

While no one in the surrounding area was at risk of exposure to the bacterium, CDC spokesman Von Roebuck said it was the first time the CDC had suspended all research on select agents and toxins, although the CDC has suspended work on specific agents before. Roebuck said the CDC will continue to investigate the incident before deciding when research can begin again.

Stewart said federal law requires that any biodefense lab accidents be reported to the CDC if the pathogens being studied can affect humans. If animal or plant pathogens are being researched, the lab is required to report security breaches and accidents to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The CDC will perform regular inspections of the lab, Stewart said.

Stewart and Hirschberg said that the existence of the BSL-3 laboratory at MU will have no impact on Columbia’s chances of being chosen for the BSL-4 facility. But Stewart, who came to MU in 2004, said the research opportunities the two labs present can be a huge recruiting tool.

“It speaks volumes about the reputation of the University of Missouri nationwide,” Stewart said. “The fact this building was coming is a large reason why I’m here.”

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