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Biosafety lab gets go-ahead

National Institutes of Health approves funding of research center at BUMC

An architecht's rendering of the NEIDL slated for the Medical Campus

The federal government yesterday granted final approval for the Boston University Medical Center to build the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) in Boston’s South End. The project had already received both local and state approval, and the Record of Decision issued yesterday by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) opens the door for construction on the Albany Street site to begin shortly.

The purpose of the lab will be to research diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments for dangerous infectious diseases, whether they occur naturally or are introduced through bioterrorism.

“This facility adds a critical component to the nation’s efforts toward addressing many emerging infectious diseases, some of which we know about now, like avian flu and West Nile virus,” says Mark Klempner, the Medical Campus associate provost for research and a School of Medicine professor, who is the principal investigator of the grant and the director of NEIDL.

“It also helps us prepare for the next unknown infectious disease that may emerge, like SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]. We absolutely need facilities like this not only to work on what we see as the emerging infectious disease, but also to work on the next ones that will surely arise, as they have throughout history.”

The Boston Redevelopment Authority Board gave its approval to the lab in December 2004, and the Boston Zoning Commission gave its approval in January 2005. BU officials estimate that the facility will create more than 1,300 construction jobs and more than 600 permanent jobs and that it will bring in $1.6 billion in federal research and construction grants over the next two decades.

In addition to high-powered microscopes and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, the proposed NEIDL will house a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab for research on dangerous microorganisms, including Ebola and botulism. Because it will be located in a densely populated urban neighborhood, the BSL-4 lab has been a source of controversy ever since September 2003 when the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAID) awarded Boston University $128 million to build the facility.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a critic of the project, maintains that the federal government did not adequately investigate the risks of the lab or alternative locations for it before giving its final approval. “We believe this decision of the NIH is completely irresponsible and is putting the public at risk,” says Carrie Russell, an attorney with CLF.

In response to safety concerns, Boston University officials stress that the lab will meet or exceed the strictest government security standards to protect researchers and the surrounding community. In addition to security personnel, metal detectors, and alarms, researchers entering the BSL-4 lab will first have to undergo a decontamination shower and don full-body hazardous materials suits. The pathogens themselves will be kept in liquid nitrogen containers that can be unlocked only with biometric or iris scans and pass codes from two researchers. All air flowing into and out of the building will pass through ultrafine HEPA filters capable of removing from the air microscopic particles of .3 microns or smaller. 

“This laboratory, with all of the safeguards in place, will match or exceed the outstanding safety record of other high-containment facilities,” says Klempner. None of the four BSL-4 labs currently operating in the United States has ever had an accidental environmental release of biological agents. The other labs are located at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md., the Viral Immunology Center at Georgia State University, and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Tex.

The NEIDL facility at BUMC is one of several new BSL-4 labs currently in the planning and design stages. While federal momentum for these new facilities resulted from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent terrorist anthrax mailings, Klempner says that most of the research planned for the new lab will be aimed at diagnosing and curing diseases that currently threaten human populations around the world. 

“This is a laboratory that’s going to be very much focused on worldwide public health,” says Klempner. “That pertains to a very long list of infectious diseases. Some of them cause concern in the area of intentional misuse, but the vast majority of these are diseases that exist and cause significant harm around the world. We need to have a global view on this.”

For frequently asked questions about the NEIDL, click here