Mo. lab on front line of next germ scare

Monday, November 24, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In 2001, the scare was anthrax. In 2003, it was SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome. And in 2005, it was bird flu.

"It seems like odd-numbered years are pretty bad," joked Michael Kurilla, director of the office of biodefense research for the National Institutes of Health. "And we're about to enter 2009."

Infectious diseases strike suddenly and can change quickly, leaving scientists scrambling to develop effective treatments. Staying one step ahead of disease is the goal of the new $18 million Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at the University of Missouri. There, scientists will study diseases including the plague, anthrax and "Q Fever" in a safe, contained environment.

"We're only a jet-plane ride away from our next epidemic, and we're actually in this race with microbes," said Samuel Stanley Jr., director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research at Washington University.

"They have this incredible ability to evolve, they're changing all the time, and as they change they become resistant to the antibiotics," Stanley said.

The new laboratory, one of 13 facilities planned in the nation, was funded in large part by the National Institutes of Health to help scientists win the race. The lab's Level 3 security status means all diseases studied there will be treatable with a known vaccine or treatment.

But concern still exists about housing the potentially deadly diseases close to a large student population. How can scientists be sure that what happens inside the lab stays inside?

To answer that question, University of Missouri scientists took reporters on a tour of some of the lab. They stressed safety.

* Doors to each laboratory require security keys, and scientists must pass through multiple secure sites to enter all labs. No clothing from the outside can be worn inside the labs. Disinfection occurs before scientists leave.

* Hallways in the facility have negative air pressure. Even if exterior doors were to open, air would be drawn inward.

* Air circulating inside the building is cleaned with highly efficient HEPA filters. All liquid or exhaust from the building is purified by an autoclave, a device that heats and sterilizes it.

* The lab structure has a backup battery to maintain a continuous flow of electricity in the event of a power outage. A backup generator also can provide power for as long as two weeks.

* Researchers must undergo a federal background check. At least two people will work on research at a time to help ensure that no harmful pathogens are intentionally removed from the facility.

Proponents say the new lab is one of the most secure research facilities in the country and will be a major recruiting tool to lure new faculty to the University of Missouri.

"The major risk that we focus on is protecting scientists," Kurilla said. "If we protect scientists from the work that they're doing, then the risk to the public becomes nil."

In the event of a national emergency caused by the outbreak of disease, the lab would be one of the facilities used to quickly combat the problem.

"If we knew what was going to pop up next, we could easily prepare," said the lab's director, George Stewart, who led the media tour. "The problem is the ultimate bioterrorist is Mother Nature, and she doesn't tell us what's lurking and is going to appear next."

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