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NEIDL Researchers Present Case for Next-Level Research

Tell Boston Biosafety Committee that BSL-4 work will speed development of new vaccines and cures


Infectious disease experts and administrators from Boston University told the Boston Biosafety Committee (BBC) on Monday night that the ability to conduct research at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) would speed the development of treatments and vaccines for life-threatening diseases and further the development of Boston as the country’s most vital hub of biomedical research. The BBC, made up of biosafety experts and community residents, is an advisory group to the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), whose approval of BSL-4 research, currently sought by the NEIDL, is the final regulatory step required for the laboratory to conduct such research. In December, after more than two years of intensive review, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved BSL-4 research at the NEIDL, which has been conducting research at BSL-2 and BSL-3.

Monday night’s public meeting of the BBC, which was devoted to discussion of NEIDL’s request for permission to conduct BSL-4 research, opened with a lengthy review of training practices and other safety precautions that have been established at the laboratory. Situated on BU’s Medical Campus in the South End, the NEIDL has been the focus of years of litigation and controversy, with opponents arguing that its urban location introduces a large population to unnecessary risk, and proponents contending that the Medical Campus site is essential to attract top research talent and foster the necessary interdisciplinary research collaboration. Completed in 2008, the lab meets the most stringent safety specifications set by the United States government for conducting infectious disease research. There are currently 11 BSL-4 labs across North America—10 in the United States and one in Winnipeg, Canada.

Speaking at the public meeting, NEIDL director Ronald B. Corley, a School of Medicine professor of microbiology, said the lab was probably the most thoroughly reviewed, inspected, and regulated lab in the world. “It has been reviewed and overseen and open to public comment for all of the 14 years that it has been in development, and it has been found to be safe for Biosafety Level 4 research,” noted Corley. “We are one of two BSL-4 labs on medical campuses, and we are the only one in a research-intensive university setting.”

In one of more than 50 written statements submitted to the BBC in support of the BSL-4 research, Corley warned that such research was becoming increasingly important as the emergence of infectious diseases accelerates because of global warming and human infringement on natural ecosystems.

“If we’ve learned anything about emerging and reemerging infectious diseases over the past decade, it’s that their emergence is accelerating due to global warming and human infringement on natural ecosystems, and their threat to humans is therefore increasing,” Corley wrote. “And in the wake of the recent Ebola outbreak, we’ve learned the critical importance of being able to detect and stop outbreaks as quickly as possible at their source. The longer outbreaks go on, the greater the risk and likelihood that those pathogens will evolve and potentially become more dangerous. Because of the persistent and unbounded threat that emerging and reemerging infectious diseases pose, as a leading research institution, it is incumbent upon Boston University to utilize its world-class scientific research expertise and resources to develop diagnostics, treatments, and cures that can contain and extinguish the threat of these diseases at their source. This requires studying these pathogens in biocontainment laboratory facilities that maintain the highest level of safety and security.”

In the public comment period following Corley’s remarks, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, the sole opponent to BSL-4 approval among the evening’s 19 speakers, said the location of the NEIDL placed a additional burden on a neighborhood that already has had more than its share of hardship. “There is disparity in the community where you are locating the lab,” said Jackson. “There are methadone treatment centers and a large public highway….The largest bus depot in New England is less than a mile from where you are planning to bring Ebola in a UPS truck.”

Jackson urged the BPHC to deny permission for BSL-4 research and focus its attention “on other issues, like the opioid abuse that is rampant all around this facility.”

Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research at BU, told the meeting that the School of Medicine devotes a great many resources to the public health of the city, including research such as the Black Women’s Health Study, research conducted at the Framingham Heart Study, and efforts to ease the state’s opioid crisis. In a written statement to the committee, Waters said that NEIDL research “will inevitably bring benefit and relief in the form of vaccines, treatments, and cures to people in Boston, the United States, and around the world who are impacted by these deadly infectious diseases.

“All research conducted at the NEIDL will be open and the results can be published,” said Waters. “Every project is scrutinized and continuously monitored by multiple local and federal agencies. The details of all of our research proposals are available for public consumption. I take our commitment to safety and transparency extremely seriously, as does every one of my colleagues and staff members. This is part of scientific culture at BU, and it emanates from the highest levels of the University on down.”

Elke Mühlberger, a MED associate professor of microbiology and one of the world’s leading filovirus researchers, expressed concern in a written statement that failure to approve BSL-4 research would send a discouraging message about Boston’s commitment to the life sciences.

“The research community, federal grant agencies, and the life sciences industry are all watching Boston very closely right now,” wrote Mühlberger, who moved from Germany to work in the NEIDL’s state-of-the-art lab. “After more than a decade-long permitting process, further delay in granting the NEIDL BSL-4 approval will likely create the perception that Boston does not promote an economic and regulatory climate that is conducive to research and investment in the life sciences. In order to maintain our reputation and standing as a leader in the life sciences, we need to move forward with BSL-4 research and signal to the rest of the world that Boston remains at the forefront of science and innovation.”

Nahid Bhadelia, a MED assistant professor of infectious diseases and medical director of the special pathogens unit at MED, wrote that the recent outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses have taught us that we must invest in research to counter their threat. Bhadelia, who several times traveled to Africa to serve in Ebola treatment units, warned that the frequency of emerging infectious diseases has been increasing, and will continue to do so because of human and environmental factors. “We are all connected by a plane ride,” noted Bhadelia. “An infectious disease threat anywhere can quickly become a threat here at home.”

Thomas Sommer, president of MassMEDIC, the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council, told the BBC that the NEIDL is “a catalyst for next-generation research and economic growth.

“Not only will the NEIDL perform incredibly valuable scientific research that will improve and save lives, it will be a magnet for highly competitive research funding.”

Kenneth Nwosu, a longtime resident of Roxbury who has lived in Nigeria, said in a written statement that recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika have emphasized the need for BSL-4 research. Nwosu, a member of the Community Liaison Committee for the NEIDL, said his experience with the committee persuaded him that “BU’s involvement in the community is profound and their community relations team works relentlessly to ensure access and transparency.”

Art Jahnke

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

2 Comments on NEIDL Researchers Present Case for Next-Level Research

  • Margo Miller on 03.07.2017 at 8:11 am

    Excellent series of articles.

    Tito Jackson treats research like a zero-sum game: “Jackson urged the BPHC to deny permission for BSL-4 research and focus its attention ‘on other issues, like the opioid abuse that is rampant all around this facility.’” And yet he must have heard of the recent $25 million gift to BMC for its opioid center. We need both.

  • Kevin Fisher on 03.07.2017 at 12:00 pm

    As a resident of the South End of Boston for over thirty years, the opportunity for the City of Boston to be home for such a facility is positive and offers tremendous benefit to the community and surrounding area.

    The NEIDL embodies a level of excellence that should set the standard for many organizations throughout the region. As a bio-safety level-4 laboratory, the facilities and staff at the NEIDL have undergone extensive preparation and testing to be recognized as one of the most thoroughly reviewed, inspected, regulated, and safest bio-containment lab in the world.

    From a management perspective, Boston University and the staff at the NEIDL have been active and trustworthy community partners. Moreover, the institution remains committed to transparency and community engagement so as to assure the Greater Boston area remains a leader in medical research and laying the groundwork for future economic opportunities that will emerge from the work at the NEIDL

    Whether we like it or not, we remain exposed to the threat of emerging infectious diseases and we should be encouraged by the opportunity to attract world class medical research professionals to lead discovery and innovation in the fight against such threats to public health. By embracing the opportunity to fight emerging diseases in our own backyard, we will assure that Boston residences can maintain access to state-of-art medical research that will benefit the area’s public health and well-being.

    I strongly encourage to stand in support of the NEIDL, and to use this opportunity to reaffirm Boston’s leadership as an area for medical innovation and research.

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