Medical school working to win bioterrorism lab

By Sharon Jayson
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

The University of Texas System regents agreed Tuesday to move forward with a plan to establish UT's Galveston medical campus as a National Biocontainment Laboratory, potentially making it a player in the war on terrorism.

The federal government plans to build two labs for the study of biological agents and research into known and emerging infectious diseases. The UT Medical Branch would be competing with significant players such as the University of California at Davis for selection as one of the labs. The application deadline is in February.

The National Institutes of Health want "to fund one or two complex and sophisticated high-level research labs that would be primarily devoted to trying to find better therapeutics, better vaccines and better treatments for diseases that would be targets of bioterrorism," said Stanley Lemon, a physician and the dean of the School of Medicine in Galveston.

First, UT must clear an easier hurdle and be designated as a regional center by the federal government. Next week UT will submit the only application in a five-state region that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Other universities in the region have agreed to support UT's effort in anticipation of sharing in millions of research dollars that could flow to the Galveston campus.

Ultimately, UT Medical Branch officials hope to build a $180 million laboratory. The federal government would give $120 million. UT Medical Branch officials would have to issue $40 million in revenue bonds and get $20 million in private donations, said John Stobo, president of the UT Medical Branch.

If UT wins the national lab designation, researchers at Galveston would not work with smallpox, but they could research anthrax, hantavirus and the Ebola and West Nile viruses, Lemon said.

UT System officials have been eager to take a key role in the biodefense effort.

They 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.

But last month federal officials extended the current contract rather than accept new bids, squashing UT's hopes.

Stobo touts the Galveston campus's efforts in biodefense and disease research and construction of a special laboratory for biosafety as proof that the campus should win the national designation.

Decisions on both the regional center and the national lab are expected in the late summer, he said.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620