UT lab shares grant, honor

Money will go toward biodefense research at medical branch

By Sharon Jayson
Saturday, September 6, 2003

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has been named one of eight regional centers for research on biological weapons defense and the study of infectious diseases.

A grant from the National Institutes of Health, totaling $48 million over five years, will be shared by UT Medical Branch and 16 universities and related centers in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Similar amounts were awarded to other sites, including Duke University, Harvard Medical School and the New York Department of Health. The total award is $350 million over five years.

"They didn't do this to just fund the research," said David Walker, director of UT Medical Branch's Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. "This is supposed to be sort of an engine that will drive much more to happen."

The UT System has been eager to play a role in biodefense. Officials worked for more than a year to prepare a bid to manage Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico -- one of the nation's top weapons and bioterrorism research complexes -- until federal officials opted against taking new bids. Now UT is pondering whether to try again with a contract for the lab at Los Alamos, N.M.

The regional center designation could give the UT branch a boost toward being named one of two biocontainment laboratories to be announced by the National Institutes of Health later this month. The UT branch is now a finalist. Additional grants will be awarded to those laboratories, which allow researchers to study dangerous microbes in a secure environment.

The high-security laboratories are not without critics. Residents in Davis, Calif., have fought the University of California's proposal to build one at its campus.

UT Medical Branch officials have already faced some of those concerns. In 1998, campus officials waged a public relations campaign to ease community fears about the Biosafety Level 4 lab they were planning. Both labs use hazardous materials. The Level 4 lab is a scaled-down version of the high-security biocontainment lab and is scheduled to be ready this fall. A building dedication is scheduled for Nov. 16.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620