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Boston Public Health Commission to Consider NEIDL Research Request Tonight

CDC approved facility for BSL-4 research in December

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The Boston Biosafety Committee will hold a public meeting this evening, Monday, March 6, to discuss a request by Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) for permission to conduct research at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4). The meeting will be held in the Hayes Conference Room on the second floor of 1010 Massachusetts Avenue from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Boston Biosafety Committee, made up of experts and community residents, is an advisory committee to Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC).

After more than two years of intensive review, BSL-4 research at the NEIDL was approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in December, bringing NEIDL scientists closer to finding new ways to prevent and treat Ebola and other dangerous pathogens. The lab, on BU’s Medical Campus in the South End, was built according to the most stringent safety specifications set by the US government for conducting infectious disease research. It still needs approval from the Boston Public Health Commission before scientists can conduct research at BSL-4.

The NEIDL, which has been conducting research at BSL-2 and BSL-3, is part of a national network of secure facilities that study emerging infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines to promote public health. BSL-4 research studies infectious diseases that are usually life-threatening and that have no available vaccine or therapy. There are 11 BSL-4 labs across North America—10 in the United States, and one in Winnipeg, Canada.

“Medicine and public health stand to benefit from the NEIDL’s capacity to study a wide range of pathogenic microbes, in a city where the expertise of many top scientists across multiple disciplines can be brought to bear,” says Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. “Microbes—some of them requiring BSL-4 research facilities—continue to emerge and reemerge, and it is essential that we have state-of-the-art facilities to study them and rapidly develop countermeasures such as diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines.”

NEIDL director Ronald B. Corley, a School of Medicine professor of microbiology, says he is pleased that the CDC has recognized the hard work that the entire NEIDL team has undertaken to prepare to do Biosafety Level 4 research safely and securely.

“This brings us closer to being able to respond to the global threat of emerging infectious diseases,” says Corley. “We have seen over the past several years how important early detection and treatment is to helping limit the spread of these diseases, and thus protect the global public health. This takes innovative research in the areas of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, each of which requires a deeper understanding of the interactions of these pathogens with humans, as well as with their animal reservoirs, or the vectors that spread them.”

The NEIDL has “obviously been through more than the usual regulatory hoops and hurdles, and I think everyone that has weighed in on it has indicated that it is definitely a safe building and that it has the proper safeguards to ensure safety both inside and outside the lab,” says John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals, which advocates for policies favorable to academic medicine and the economy of Boston and addresses the city’s public health needs through cooperative efforts with other providers and agencies. “Boston and Massachusetts are a medical research mecca, and a level 4 lab is a great coup for us. It’s the right place and it’s the right time and we’ve been through every possible process to prove that it’s safe.”

South End resident Robert Timmerman, a member of the Community Liaison and Institutional Biosafety Committees, says the CDC approval further validates the safety of the building and the crucial importance of the BSL-4 research that he hopes will soon be conducted at the NEIDL. “You’re much safer working at the NEIDL than biking in Boston,” says Timmerman. “People keep saying, ‘Why don’t you put the lab in Peterborough, N.H., or some other place?’ But you need to be in a city where ideas are exchanged and where if you’ve got a lab with sophisticated equipment you’re going to be able to support it.”

Among the Boston researchers who have been supportive of the NEIDL’s BSL-4 lab is computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who investigates the genomes of microbes like Lassa and Ebola viruses and is a leader of the infectious diseases and microbiome program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “The West African Ebola outbreak of 2013 to 2016 exposed our global vulnerabilities to deadly microbial threats and highlighted the need for proactive measures in advance of outbreaks and swift action during them,” says Sabeti, a Harvard University associate professor. “At the same time, it showed our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat deadly infectious diseases through new technologies. In this time of great potential for devastation or advancement, the new BSL-4 lab at BU is needed now more than ever. It has the ability to galvanize the Boston scientific community in one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes.”

Corley says combating the spread of emerging infectious diseases requires collaboration among multidisciplinary teams of scientists such as those in Boston. “There are no other BSL-4 labs in the middle of a very research-intensive university like BU or in a mecca for biomedical research like the Boston area,” he says. “No other facility has the ability to draw on the rich resources we do. Emerging infectious diseases are tough problems to solve and they require people from many disciplines to work on them. No other BSL-4 lab can draw on the expertise locally from a large number of people who are not microbiologists or infectious diseases researchers and physicians, but who have important expertise and think about things in a very different way—engineers, chemists, scientists who work on regenerative medicine, people who deal with occupational medicine. Our advantage at the NEIDL is that we can link these people to scientists working on emerging pathogens, so together we can do things that can’t be done by scientists working alone in their disciplines.”

Corley says the NEIDL’s BSL-4 lab is one of the most carefully designed and constructed buildings of its kind in the world. It has its own filtration, decontamination, and waste disposal systems and special engineering features that prevent microorganisms from being disseminated into the environment. Researchers wear protective, air-supplied, full-body suits and undergo extensive training in handling hazardous infectious agents.

One of a small group of microbiologists around the world who are trained to work with Ebola virus and similarly deadly pathogens in BSL-4 labs, Elke Mühlberger arrived at the NEIDL eight and a half years ago from the BSL-4 lab at Philipps University of Marburg in Marburg, Germany. “I’m superexcited about the CDC approval,” says Mühlberger, a MED associate professor of microbiology and one of the world’s leading filovirus researchers. She says she felt so safe at the BSL-4 lab in Marburg that she worked through the final months of her two pregnancies there. “Hopefully we are closer to being able to do what we are supposed to do in this building—excellent research.”

Mühlberger says she has pinned the CDC permit for the BSL-4 lab to the wall next to her computer. “Other people have pictures of their children and husbands,” she says. “I prefer to see this beautiful permit. The lab itself is just fantastic. It’s huge and it has room for many researchers, which is one of the big advantages of this facility, because you need a live and vibrant research community to do good and collaborative work. Today’s science is all about collaboration, and this is what this facility is made for. That is the reason I was so excited about coming here. On top of that, Boston is one of the most vibrant scientific cities worldwide, if not the most vibrant scientific city in the world. You are surrounded by absolutely fantastic researchers with whom you can collaborate. It’s heaven. Our BSL-4 facility is the missing jewel in the crown of Boston’s research community, and I am proud to be part of it.”

6 Comments
Sara Rimer, Director, Research Communications at Boston University
Sara Rimer

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

6 Comments on Boston Public Health Commission to Consider NEIDL Research Request Tonight

  • Logic Rules on 03.06.2017 at 9:07 am

    I wonder how the future construction immediately adjacent to the NEIDL will affect its integrity? The building next to it has perpetual problems with ground water seepage and floods allegedly because foundation is built on reclaimed land (i.e. swamp) unlike the lab in Winnipeg. Also one must consider the underlying reason: why place a BSL-4 lab in a metropolitan area? While it is true that Boston is a hub of great scientific interchange often one may reason, built a great thing and they will come to it regardless of locale.

    • MET Alum on 03.06.2017 at 10:47 am

      No they will not come.

      • LarryO on 03.07.2017 at 4:54 pm

        Nothing will be built within the fenced in perimeter of the NEIDL facility by design. It was designed to be able to deal with earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks.
        The facility has already been there for 10 years and is just now getting the permits for BSL-4 research. Most of the researchers that work in the building also work at BMC a few hundred feet away. Now that is convenience!

  • Roxbury resident-pro BSL-4 on 03.06.2017 at 12:00 pm

    I am a lifelong Boston resident . I live 1/2 mile from the site. I have toured the facility. The engineering is extraordinary and the building is safe.
    Take at look at East Cambridge. The reason the research facilities are there is because Cambridge has welcomed their innovative spirit. They are creating cures for diseases and new medicines.
    The NEIDL will help us fight emerging infectious diseases.

    • LarryO on 03.07.2017 at 4:59 pm

      I agree. A facility like this is greatly needed, and Boston is a great place for it. I also toured the facility before it opened for research, and was *greatly impressed* with the security and safety protocols in place. I felt completely and totally satisfied with the health and safety of the surrounding area after touring the facility.

  • gerald collins on 03.07.2017 at 6:25 pm

    When there is a viral or bacterial out break ( as will happen) the nay sayers for this lab will say “How come we dont have any cure”. “Why aren’t the researchers doing something about it”

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