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Last Updated

11 Feb 2003

Source: Boston Globe, February 11, 2003

Pursuit of secure lab faces tough competition

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

It would be unlike anything Boston's medical community has ever seen: Armed guards prowling checkpoints. A labyrinth of hallways encircling more hallways. Scientists in laboratory space suits using mechanical hands to pick up the deadliest biological agents known to man.

If Boston University Medical Center prevails in its pursuit of a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory -- the most secure category of labs, reserved for working with smallpox, anthrax, Ebola, and other lethal viruses and bacteria -- it would bring to the city's South End a facility straight from the book ''The Hot Zone'' or the film ''Outbreak.'' The medical center's application for the money to build and run a Level 4 lab landed at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases yesterday, a proposal that could yield up to $1.6 billion in construction and research grants.

BU and its hospital face stiff competition from at least four universities and a state health department for the region's first Level 4 lab. But federal officials say the bids -- which run hundreds of pages and cost an estimated half a million dollars to prepare -- will require extensive analysis before a winner can be named in the fall.

''It's not like you just go out and build one of these things,'' said Rona Hirschberg, the federal official presiding over development of new Level 4 labs. ''There's multiple levels of stuff to assure safety and security. Everything is designed so that it will keep the people working there safe and prevent anything from getting out of the facility that might hurt the environment or the people outside.''

Scientists wait months, or even longer, to gain access to the four existing Level 4 labs in North America, which is one of the reasons the federal government wants more. They are the only venues where researchers can study the agents that populate the roster of most-feared biological microbes compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the bacteria and viruses on the Category A list of biological diseases and agents: anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and an assortment of hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola and hantavirus.

The quest to build more Level 4 labs quickened after the Sept. 11 attacks and the arrival of letters laden with anthrax. A federal commission advocated establishing a network of regional research centers to explore the infectious agents most perilous to humans, with the goal of seeking cures and vaccines to arrest them.

The announcement that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was soliciting proposals to build and operate one or two of the world's most sophisticated labs ignited a feverish race among academic institutions, a testament to the financial and intellectual rewards at stake. The universities that become home to a Level 4 lab will instantly gain prestige that 100 smaller grants taken together could never confer.

But with that higher profile comes the inevitable whiff of controversy. Already, citizen groups in some cities have begun challenging the wisdom of studying smallpox and Ebola in labs sitting just around the corner from the neighborhood diner and elementary school. Their concerns are bolstered by scientific watchdogs devoted to the peaceful use of laboratory research.

Groups such as the Sunshine Project, an international nonprofit that bills itself as working ''against the hostile use of biotechnology in the post-Cold War era,'' caution that by sanctioning and paying for the creation of more high-level labs, the federal government risks placing dangerous agents in the hands of home-grown terrorists.

Citing confidentiality regulations, federal authorities will not disclose the identities of the institutions bidding for Level 4 labs. Only six acknowledge coveting such a facility and spending the money to draft intricate proposals: Besides the BU Medical Center, they are the University of California at Davis, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, University of Maryland, and the New York State Department of Health.

The willingness to collaborate is viewed as a pivotal component of the proposals. That's because federal agencies have mandated that the Level 4 labs will not be the province of a single school or health agency. Instead, the labs will be open to researchers from across the nation -- after those scientists have undergone rigorous review by the government.

In bidding for the first such lab west of the Rockies, UC-Davis provost Virginia Hinshaw touts her school's relationships with the other nine campuses of the vaunted UC system, as well as Stanford, the University of New Mexico, and the Scripps Research Institute. It is a claim echoed by Mark Rosati, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His school has the backing of more than two dozen research centers, including its hometown rivals, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

The proposal from Boston University Medical Center totals 2,000 pages, including letters of support from community groups and researchers at Harvard, Tufts, and the University of Massachusetts. The centerpiece of the Boston application: The city's enviable constellation of researchers and its status as top recipient of federal health research dollars in the nation.

''There's no place that's more of a hub than Boston to do this kind of research,'' said Dr. Mark S. Klempner, assistant provost for research at the BU medical campus.