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Biosafety Labs to Open This Week

NEIDL’s first quarry: tuberculosis


This week, $200 million worth of laboratories that have been idle for three-plus years on the Medical Campus begin their first research: combating the resurgent killer tuberculosis.

Following state approval in December of Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) research, 15 researchers are moving into the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and firing up their equipment. Legal challenges and government reviews had stalled the start of research.

The labs are awaiting approval to do more sensitive Biosafety Level 3 and Level 4 research. Meanwhile, to assuage the concerns of neighbors and environmentalists about the lab’s safety in a populous area, NEIDL leaders and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) have been guiding public health and safety officers, political leaders, reporters, and residents on tours of the labs.

“It is noteworthy that these researchers will be conducting important public health research on a disease that affects nearly one-third of the world’s population,” says NEIDL interim director John Murphy, a School of Medicine professor of medicine and microbiology.

The inaugural research pits these new high-tech labs against a disease once declared eradicated by the U.S. Surgeon General. The new iteration of TB is resistant to many common drug therapies and is plaguing large cities throughout the world that are vulnerable to the airborne bacteria causing the contagious affliction.

One NEIDL research team will study M. smegmatis, a relative of the organism that causes TB. Unlike the TB organism, M. smegmatis doesn’t cause disease and might provide clues to “how key gene control mechanisms work,” according to a NEIDL press release. James Galagan, a College of Engineering associate professor of biomedical engineering and microbiology, leads the team.

Another team will probe how host resistance to the TB bacteria works, with an eye toward improving the potency and safety of vaccines. Igor Kramnik, a MED associate professor of medicine, heads this team.

Other BSL-2 research will include studies of measles, meningitis, and Dengue fever.

A three-hour public meeting on a National Institutes of Health risk report on the BSL-3 and BSL-4 research will be held April 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Roxbury Community College, 1234 Columbus Ave., Boston. It’s uncertain when regulatory and court approval for those research levels will come.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

15 Comments on Biosafety Labs to Open This Week

  • Anne marie Rezendes on 04.04.2012 at 10:55 am

    Congratulations!!! Please don’t make any new untreatable supper bugs!!!!

    • K on 04.04.2012 at 2:05 pm

      Supper bugs are very polite at meals, though!

  • Ben on 04.04.2012 at 11:14 am

    I’m glad that the Biosafety lab is opening! I have 100% faith in it that nothing will go wrong. go wrong. go wrong. go wrong. go wrong…


    • Ben on 04.04.2012 at 11:48 am

      Side note: I’m all for the studying and research to better improve our medical knowledge and help prevent/cure viruses, etc., but in the middle of a city?

      • Liz on 04.04.2012 at 1:18 pm

        You do realize that many buildings at BU are full of BSL2 labs that have been functioning safely for many years? The reason for having NEIDL in the city, and in Boston in particular, is because Boston is a hub for biomedical research – the location of this lab will allow for a variety of collaborations that wouldn’t otherwise be feasible were the lab located outside of the greater Boston area. It also allows researchers at Boston University to do research in a convenient location that wouldn’t otherwise be possible in our less up-to-date facilities.

        • Ben on 04.05.2012 at 1:01 am

          Okay. Valid point. BSL2 labs, if they can’t really kill people easily, I guess it’s fine.

  • E.B. on 04.04.2012 at 2:43 pm

    This is a good thing for BU to research. REsearch on deadly bioterroism agents in BL 3 and 4 labs is not. Those agents should not be in a populated area.

  • LO on 04.04.2012 at 2:59 pm

    I took one of the tours that was offered last year. The security and safety protocols in place were waaaaaaay beyond what I could imagine. I will have no problem with BSL-3 and BSL-4 research being done there once they get those approvals. Check out the other stories and videos that describe some (not all) of the safety features. There is good reason it cost $200 million and not $50 million to build.

    • Ben on 04.05.2012 at 1:03 am

      Have you read or seen the Hot Zone (nonfictional story about the outbreak of a deadly virus from a biolab)? While it’s true safeguards may be in place and are very strictly followed, it is not about every time that they follow procedure or succeed, it is about that one time that they, or something out of their control, fails.

      • Em on 04.05.2012 at 9:50 am

        Classic case of people not understanding something and therefore fearing what they can’t understand. Scientific progress shouldn’t be punished because people are are irrational and confuse hollywood with reality.

        • Ben on 04.05.2012 at 1:42 pm

          I was stating the Hot Zone to show the potential of things that can happen when something goes wrong. And it was historical non-fiction book as well–same plot. If something goes wrong, it’s easy to say in hindsight that they didn’t understand what they were doing.

          If the pathogens are contagious, deadly, and not easily curable, then they should probably be studied in a more secluded region.

          And please don’t accuse me of wanting to punish scientific progress–I do not believe there are many people out there more for scientific progress than me.

      • PO on 04.05.2012 at 9:56 am

        One of the reasons for the outbreak in the Hot Zone was also because they had no idea what the virus was at the time or what type of proper precautions to take, they do now. Also, there are many labs at the medical center that are already doing BSL3 research, and agents at the BSL4 level such as Marburg and ebola aren’t nearly as contagious as one might think, the Hot Zone just over sensationalized them.

        • Ben on 04.06.2012 at 12:13 pm

          Isn’t a lot of research based on the fact that we don’t know about these new viruses? I understand we may also be solving for cures/prevention, etc., but couldn’t the same lack of understanding cause the same thing again? We may know more about Ebola, etc. now, but there will be other new viruses that could be dangerous that we don’t yet understand.

      • Kathryn on 04.09.2012 at 5:59 pm

        Actually, the Hot Zone is a story about how these labs were able to identify a new virus that appeared on its own – there was never any release of anything from the labs themselves. And as LO mentioned, these labs have precautions on top of precautions on top of precautions, and there is no feasible way that anything will escape unless MAJOR problems occur.

        • Ben on 04.15.2012 at 8:02 pm

          Thanks for clearing that up. That is very true.

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