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U.Va. Applying to Host Biodefense Lab
 
Dr. William Petri
Dr. William Petri

February 4, 2003

By Fariss Samarrai

The University is applying for a $14 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a regional biocontainment laboratory at the School of Medicine.

The lab would allow University researchers to conduct advanced research on infectious and emerging diseases and immunology. The facility’s status as a regional biocontainment laboratory under the federal grant would qualify it for use by visiting scientists from other universities and research institutes in the event of a biodefense emergency.

"The University has a long history of strength in infectious disease research, with many research projects currently ongoing," said Dr. William Petri, chief of U.Va.’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health and a professor of medicine, microbiology and pathology. "This grant will allow us to respond to new NIH biodefense research initiatives and to establish a lab that will be as good as any in the country in an increasingly important area of research."

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent use of anthrax as a terrorist weapon, the National Institutes of Health have dramatically increased funding for research in infectious and emerging diseases. More than $1 billion in new funding is available, including $150 million to establish new lab space and regional biocontainment laboratories for biodefense research.

The lab at U.Va. would serve a federally designated region that includes Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia. Scientists at universities and federal labs throughout the region would interact and collaborate on biodefense research projects.

The University needs $14 million in additional funds to begin construction on its new $60 million Medical Research Building 6, which would house the regional biocontainment laboratory.

In November, Virginia voters passed a bond referendum that will provide $24 million for construction of the building. The University also is raising funds from private sources. The regional biocontainment laboratory would form a quadrangle with Medical Research Buildings 4 and 5 and could be completed as early as 2006 if federal funding is obtained.

Currently, the University conducts research at three federally established levels — Biosecurity Levels 1, 2 and 3. BSL1 is basic lab work on common and safe organisms. Level 2 involves work with organisms such as salmonella and staph, which have the potential to make people sick but are not dangerous under normal laboratory conditions. Level 3 involves agents such as anthrax and Francisella tularensis, bacteria that can be lethal but are fully manageable under strictly controlled laboratory conditions. Such agents also have been developed as biological weapons by terrorists and "rogue" nations.

The University currently has one BSL3 lab where researchers investigate the characteristics of anthrax and Francisella tularensis as well as their potential effect on human health. With further funding, U.Va. scientists will deepen and broaden their studies, looking for new therapies and drugs to treat infections and for new ways to make effective vaccines. U.Va. scientists also are investigating the use of anti-inflammatory drugs patented by the University to protect against the toxins produced during anthrax infection.

A new state-of-the art BSL3 lab would allow U.Va. researchers to further investigate these and other agents and to attract additional federal funding for medical and biodefense research. The 6,900 square feet of BSL3 lab space will be in two highly secure sites in the regional containment lab.

"The lab would help the University recruit top scientists and increase our collaborative work with researchers around Grounds and in the region," said Petri. "This would be the optimal setting to bring together infectious disease researchers, allergists and immunologists for vaccine and drug development, and for a greater understanding of how various agents cause disease."

NIH plans to award six grants for regional biocontainment laboratories throughout the U.S. Twenty-seven institutions are applying for the grants; U.Va. appears to be the only institution in Virginia applying. Duke University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State and others within the region also are applying.

Because NIH requires grant applicants to notify the public whenever a regional biocontainment laboratory is proposed, the University is placing an advertisement in local newspapers notifying residents that information about the lab is available from the School of Medicine's Office of Research. The University also held a press briefing recently to explain the rationale for the lab.

The biocontainment lab, like all labs at U.Va., would be overseen by the University's Institutional Biosafety Committee, which ensures that research laboratories follow all federally-established guidelines and regulations for biological research. The committee includes members of the University's research community and two Charlottesville-Albemarle citizens unaffiliated with the University.

"This lab will allow the University to serve and respond to a national need for biodefense research," said Mark Ross, a member of the biosafety committee and a chemist with the Charlottesville biotechnology company MDS Proteomics. "I have complete confidence that the University of Virginia will run this lab according to all federal regulations and protocols, and will produce important findings in this critical area of research."

The grant application is available to the public for review in the dean’s office at the medical school. For more information about the regional biocontainment lab, contact Dr. William Petri at 924-5621.

   
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