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SRI scientists to test anthrax

Birmingham News
DAVE PARKS, News staff writer

Lab renovated to safely handle bioterror agents

Southern Research Institute's high-security lab in Birmingham is undergoing a major renovation that will allow it to attract millions of dollars in new projects and perform research into the one of the most lethal bioterror agents, aerosolized anthrax.

The lab was closed in November and is expected to reopen in July with new safety equipment and modifications that will allow scientists to work on pathogens such as anthrax sprayed into the air, said Tina Rogers, vice president of the institute's Drug Development Division.

The million-dollar-plus renovation is being paid for by Southern Research and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. When completed, the upgraded lab could attract up to $42 million in work over the next seven years, according to government estimates.

Rogers said the renovation will allow the lab to handle research into aerosolized anthrax, the most dangerous form of the bacteria. Once aerosolized, anthrax spores cannot be seen by the naked eye or smelled.

But they can be inhaled and lodge in lungs, where they spread throughout the body and produce deadly toxins. This type of inhalation anthrax is the most fatal form of the disease.

In 2001, a series of anthrax attacks occurred in the United States. The substance was sent by mail, and victims developed inhalation anthrax. Five people died.

Southern Research's 13-year-old, 10,000-square-foot Biosafety Level 3 facility is one notch below a top-of-the-line BSL 4 lab, like the one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Labs on rise

The federal government has been increasing the nation's BSL 3 and BSL 4 capacity so more research can be conducted on biological warfare agents and emerging diseases.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is building a BSL 3 lab, which has raised safety concerns. The new UAB lab and the renovated Southern Research lab both will be working with deadly microbes in the heavily populated Medical District.

Debra Sharpe, safety and security manager for Southern Research, said there is no reason for public concern about the anthrax research. "The facility's safe, and the community's safe," she said.

She said safety standards at Southern Research labs are better than those found in most labs. For instance, workers in Southern Research's lab wear respirators. That's not done in all BSL 3 labs, she said.

In addition, workers are upgrading Southern Research's lab with new and redundant safety systems, things such as two new pressure doors for its sterilization area. The large stainless steel doors costs $65,000 each, Sharpe said. "But they're pretty cool, because you can crank them down and nothing comes out."

Most important, a new mini-lab is being created within the main lab. This one-room lab is for research into aerosolized agents and contains two large, stainless steel glove boxes. The mini-lab is fitted with a $200,000 autoclave.

The safety of the main lab and mini-lab is maintained by negative air pressure and filters. Air is constantly pulled into lab space and filtered, preventing microbes from escaping. "It's not the walls that make you safe," Sharpe explained. "It's directional air flow."

By contrast, BSL 4 labs depend largely on tight seals to prevent pathogens from escaping.

Meeting standards

Rogers said the renovations will allow Southern Research to conduct more studies of pathogens such as anthrax in compliance with the FDA Good Laboratory Practice regulations. Southern Research will be one of the few companies in the United States that will meet these standards in a BSL 3 lab, Rogers said. "That's really a unique capability."

The standard is necessary to test drugs when human clinical trials aren't possible. For example, the practices would be followed when testing animals with a vaccine to protect them against anthrax. It would be impossible to conduct such studies on humans since it would require infecting them with anthrax.

An anthrax vaccine exists. But it requires multiple shots over a long time, and there are concerns about side effects.