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VOL. 124 | NO. 121 | Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Biocontainment Laboratory Finished, Ready for Research

By Tom Wilemon

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Gerald Byrne, the director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, walked outside the fortress-like building and stepped inside an air-conditioned tent with a smile on his face Monday as he awaited guests to take through the new $25 million research facility.

The tours following the ribbon-cutting ceremony likely will be the only time the dignitaries, media and other visitors will be allowed inside. Pathogens, such as the bacteria and viruses that carry plague, tularemia (rabbit fever), drug-resistant tuberculosis and other diseases will be contained here as scientists research ways to protect the public from naturally occurring outbreaks or biological warfare.

The lab is one of 13 such facilities funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It is the first new building on the University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park campus. Byrne said Horrell Group, the architectural design firm, and Inman Construction Corp., the builder, consulted with the federal agency on every facet of the work.

The result is a structure built to withstand earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

“It is earthquake proof,” Byrne said. “We have 100 piles going into the ground rather than the required 50. We have I-beam construction that is three times the size that is necessary for a building this size. The I-beam construction will support a 40-story skyscraper. The concrete walls are 18 inches thick around this facility.”

The building will have 24-7 security inside and out.

“Once we lock down, there will be very limited access to this facility,” Byrne said. “The whole purpose of these buildings is to increase the safety for the type of research that we’re doing in emerging infections.”

The Memphis lab has research features that distinguish it from others, he said, and provide a platform for high robotic through-put, or small molecule drug discovery capacity.

“We have a fantastic imaging system in our facility that allows us to do real time imaging of infectious disease progression in live animals as it happens,” Byrne said. “We have live cell imaging in containment, and we have flow cytometry and cell sorting all in containment. That’s a very unique feature for our facility.

“In addition to that, we have a very, very strong presence in genetics and genomics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, especially in modeling infectious diseases, and we’re taking complete advantage of that in some of the work that we’re doing with rodents and infectious disease.”

The lab has already attracted a new biotechnology company. Biopeptides Corp. moved research staff to Memphis from New York last year to have access to the Level III biocontainment laboratory for research.

Dr. Maria Gomes-Solecki, the company’s director of research, is at work on developing antibodies to the bacterium that causes plague, vaccine therapies for Lyme disease and other diseases transmitted from animals to humans.

Scientists at the Memphis lab will investigate drug-resistant tuberculosis, cholera, streptococci and tularemia. The laboratory will be available to scientists from the university, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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