Disease research center nears opening | VailDaily.com

Disease research center nears opening

Laura Bailey
The Coloradoan
Vail, CO Colorado

FORT COLLINS (AP) ” Millions of dollars have been spent and painstaking precautions made.

Now, after 18 months of construction, Colorado State University has cracked open the doors to its soon-to-open infectious disease research center.

The facility is about to become the second of 13 similar centers being built around the country to study infectious diseases as part of national biodefense effort funded by a National Institutes of Health.

As construction crews put the final touches on the Regional Biocontainment Center at CSU’s Foothills Campus, the facility is offering tours to university faculty.

Local residents will be invited in September to take a look during two weeks of public tours. After that, the facility, which will house research on pathogens like West Nile virus and tuberculosis, goes on lock-down, and no one but researchers will be allowed to enter.

Until the official Oct. 2 opening, Ralph E. Smith, professor of microbiology, immunology and pathology and interim director of the center, said he hopes to put the public at ease over the type of viruses and bacteria handled by the lab.

“It’s safe and it’s necessary,” Smith said. “We’re not doing this for fun. It’s really part of a national effort for understanding and controlling these things.”

In 2005, CSU received a $22 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to create the facility, which will be an expansion of a smaller lab on the Foothills Campus. Researchers will study pathogens that could be aerosolized and used in a bioterrorist attack.

The pathogens are considered biosafety level 3, or BSL3, which includes pathogens that are dangerous but not always fatal, such as West Nile virus or dengue virus.

While construction of the biocontainment center is close to complete, the lab must still undergo testing of its safety features. In August, the facility and all of its safety features will undergo a three-week test in which all of the systems must work perfectly for 21 days.

None of pathogens to be studied stand a chance of escaping the facility’s walls, Smith said. Testing labs will have all the standard safety features, including 10 separate air systems for the facility to ensure air doesn’t circulate between labs and 146 HEPA air filters that kill any pathogens that try to escape.

Other safety features include a 2,000 kilowatt back up power generator, said to be so powerful it could power a quarter of the city’s homes.

While the facility will not have armed guards, it will be patrolled by CSU police, Smith said.

While research on such infectious disease has been ongoing at CSU for 20 years, the facility is a major expansion of an older lab on the campus for infectious disease research.

CSU was the only university without a medical school to receive funding for the lab, which will be the only lab of its kind in Colorado.

“That’s a reflection of the quality of the faculty and the research that has been going on at CSU for decades,” said Tony Frank, senior vice president and provost at CSU.

While other university labs study the same infectious diseases, the center is unique in that, in addition to being used by university researchers, it will lease space to the private sector with the intention of speeding up the development of drugs and vaccines, Frank said.

The process of getting drugs to market is slowed because pharmaceutical companies are required to redo all the testing done at the university. The biocontainment lab could allow researchers to overlap part of that time by working jointly on a project, Frank said.

While work at the facility was funded for the purposes of biodefense, it will also help conquer naturally occurring diseases, Frank said.

“Hopefully the work we do will never be applied in a defense against bio warfare, but if that’s the case, it will benefit billions of people worldwide,” he said.

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