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VOL. 122 | NO. 47 | Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Biocontainment Lab Heralds Momentum At Research Park

By Amy O. Williams

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READY TO SPROUT: This rendering shows what the UT-Baptist Research Park's biocontainment laboratory will look like when completed in 2008. -- Image Courtesy Of The Ut Health Science Center

The Memphis medical community has moved one big step closer to its goal of having a world-class medical research facility Downtown.

Officials from the city's medical community broke ground Friday on the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL).

The lab will be the first new facility to be built at the University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park, which will be completed in six phases in 10 to 15 years.

"As the walls of the Regional Biocontainment Lab rise, everyone in Memphis will be able to see for themselves that the future of Memphis is here," said Memphis Bioworks Foundation president and executive director Dr. Steve Bares, as he addressed the crowd gathered for the official groundbreaking ceremony. "And it is one exciting thing to see."

Great big Petri dish

The Bioworks Foundation is leading the effort to build the UT-Baptist Research Park at the original site of Baptist Hospital off Union Avenue.

Baptist Memorial Health Care's former Medical Center Main Tower, which sat at the corner of Union and Dudley Street, was taken down in early November 2005 to make way for construction of the research park.

Inman Construction Co. is the builder on the project and expects the new facility will be completed by June 17, 2008. The laboratory will be 31,000 square feet and will cost $25 million. The RBL is being paid for with about $17.7 million in National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) funding, and UTHSC is providing the remainder.

"It's a pretty big deal for us because it was a competitive grant award that was made back in 2003 based on the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) need to realize that we have to improve our infrastructure in areas related to emerging infections and biodefense," said Dr. Gerald Byrne, director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory.

"Now we are going to have a state-of-the-art facility that will enable us to expand the type of work we're doing, and hopefully do some good in terms of diagnostics, vaccines, and developing new treatments that are going to benefit all of us."

Bubble of sterility

The facility will be a safe environment in which scientists and researchers can work on infectious disease agents, research Byrne said has been very strong at the UTHSC for years.

"It's really the first visible part of the new research park and that's going to really impact the economy when that is finished," he said.

The UT-Baptist Research Park will be completed in six phases over a 10- to 15-year period.

The entire research park is expected to have a $2 billion annual economic impact on the Memphis economy, according to the Memphis Bioworks Foundation Web site, www.memphisbioworks.org.

The research park ultimately will consist of 1.2 million square feet of laboratory, research, education and business development space on a 10-acre campus and will mean an economic impact of $250 million in annual salaries from 5,000 new jobs when it is completed.

"The long-term economic impacts of the RBL are the research that goes on (in) the building, the commercial activities that result from the technologies that are developed or invented inside the building - those are the real economic drivers that follow on as a result of these kinds of programs," Bares said.

Counterterrorism efforts

In addition to the economic boost the RBL will provide, having the lab in Memphis also is expected to attract the best and brightest researchers. The lab will be one of 13 regional biocontainment laboratories to be built in the United States.

Scientists will research potential vaccines for diseases that could be used in bioterrorism.

"One of the biodefense pathogens people are concerned about is called tularemia, also known as rabbit fever," Byrne said. "Rabbit fever is seen occasionally, but is a disease that can be weaponized, so we've got a vaccine program against that."

That program and the others will be moved into the RBL upon its completion next year.

Bares described the work already being done at UTHSC as one of the areas of excellence in the Memphis community.

"When you think about Memphis from the outside world, the areas of infectious disease are a big deal," he said. "The expertise here is unbelievable."

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