UTMB on biowar front line

Lab funded by federal grant will seek defenses for terror

Houston Chronicle Medical Writer
October 1, 2003

Recognizing Galveston's emerging status as a center for bioterrior research, the federal government gave the University of Texas Medical Branch $110 million Tuesday to construct a biodefense laboratory.

Galveston was one of only two locations chosen for the lucrative grant, making it a key component of the nation's homeland security initiative, Texas politicians and scientists said.

The lab, to be built on the UTMB campus within five years, will focus on developing drugs, vaccines and tests for pathogens that terrorists might use, including anthrax, bubonic plague and Ebola. Researchers also will study naturally occurring emerging infections such as SARS and West Nile virus.

The federal funding comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The University of Texas system will contribute $40 million to complete construction of a seven-story, 160,000-square-foot building.

"We take great pride in the confidence NIAID placed in our expertise and in our ability to do this critically important work," said Stanley Lemon, dean of medicine at UTMB and a principal investigator for the lab.

Last year, an outside panel of experts told the NIH that not enough level-4 research space -- the highest biosafety classification -- existed to thoroughly study potential bioterror weapons. The lack of space posed a significant barrier to progress, the experts said.

Only half a dozen such facilities exist in North America. The most dangerous and contagious virus, smallpox, is confined to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta. It will not be used in Galveston.

UTMB has established a national reputation for research into infectious diseases, and will open a small lab with 2,000 square feet of level-4 space this fall.

A major key to the island's success, school officials said Tuesday, is public support for the potentially controversial facility. They credit public outreach programs dating to 1997 for educating residents about the research's importance and the safety involved in handling the materials.

"I think that was a stroke of genius," said Roger "Bo" Quiroga, mayor of Galveston. "They got a consensus first, before doing anything else. I think that probably, if you take a look at some of the cities in the running for this, there was nowhere else that had stronger community support."

At a minimum, university officials say, the grant will bring 200 new jobs and an annual economic impact of $75 million to the island. That's not counting the economic spinoff from start-up companies created by researchers.

Safety is a top concern, officials say. Structurally, the building will be constructed to withstand hurricanes, a concern common to island development. In a worst-case hurricane scenario, in which the lab would be severely damaged, dangerous materials could be neutralized in less than three hours before a storm's arrival, officials said.

The building's design will include such security measures as armed guards, eyeball-scanners for identification, and card and keypad checkpoints to control access.

Scientists will be working with small quantities of the dangerous materials, not the amount terrorists would typically need to pull off an attack, said C.J. Peters, director of biodefense at UTMB.

In an outbreak, university officials said they would launch the regional emergency response plans already in place for bioterror attacks.

(Officials said they knew of no materials ever being leaked from a level-3 or level-4 lab that caused health problems in a neighboring community.)

The increased lab space will allow researchers to investigate infectious agents far better than before.

For decades researchers have done most of their research on forms of attacking viruses called surrogates, which are chemically similar to their dangerous counterparts, but harmless to humans.

"But it's the difference between studying a gnat and a wasp," Peters said. "One of them can sting you and one can't. There has to be a difference."

With the extra space scientists will be able to bring more equipment into the high-level areas. A magnetic resonance imaging machine, for example, would help researchers study the brain of an infected animal moment-by-moment, Peters said.

Because existing space has been so limited, scientists haven't been able to work with research animals as much as they would like. Computer modeling for therapies only go so far, the scientists say. Sooner or later the drug must be shown to work in an animal.

Earlier this month, the federal government gave $48 million to UTMB and 15 local institutions to form one of eight regional centers for bioterrorism research. That money will fund research.

The $150 million in federal and UT System money announced Tuesday will go strictly toward the building. Scientists using the facility are expected to draw tens of millions of dollars in new research grants from the NIH to fund their studies.

The federal government chose the Boston University Medical Center to host a second biocontainment lab. It also established nine smaller, regional labs including one for Tulane University in New Orleans. These centers will receive grants of between $7 million and $21 million.