When the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced last fall that UTMB had won $110 million in federal funding to build one of two proposed National Biocontainment Laboratories (the other went to Boston University), talk turned quickly to the possibilities created by the proposed lab.
“The Galveston National Laboratory [GNL] will be an extraordinary facility that will have a key role in the efforts of the National Institutes of Health to protect the American public not only against the potential ravages of bioterrorism, but also against the more awesome threat posed by Mother Nature,” UTMB Dean of Medicine Stanley Lemon, the principal investigator for the $167 million project, said. “It will truly make this university a unique player in the global struggle against bioterrorism and emerging infections.”
The critical factor, researchers point out, is size. The just-opened Robert E. Shope, M.D., biosafety level 4 (BSL4) lab in the John Sealy Pavilion for Infectious Diseases Research has about 2,000 square feet of BSL4 lab space, equivalent in size to an average house. The seven-story GNL—planned to be built on the site of the Gail Borden Building, would have about 13,000 square feet of BSL4 space, along with an additional 69,000 square feet of assignable space, much of which would be used for lower-level containment labs.
“It will truly make this university a unique player in the global struggle against bioterrorism and emerging infections.”
The big GNL “hot zones” would make it possible to use equipment never before installed in a maximum-containment lab. A confocal microscope, which uses lasers and fluorescent antibody “tags” to detect specific, individual proteins inside cells, is on the researchers’ list, as is a cryo-electron microscope, which makes it possible to see details of virus structures less than a nanometer across. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; the West Nile virus, for example, is about 40 to 60 nanometers in diameter).
Also on the list: high-speed robotic drug screening systems and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, which could revolutionize BSL4 research. “MRI enables us to look inside the brain of an infected animal and see the changes that are happening in real time, sequentially, moment by moment, hour by hour,” says C.J. Peters, director for biodefense of the UTMB Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases and the John Sealy Distinguished University Chair in Tropical and Emerging Virology. “That’s something absolutely unique that’s never been done in BSL4 containment, and we’re going to be doing it.”
UTMB plans to break ground on the GNL next year, and the lab is scheduled to open in mid-2008.