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Last Updated

07 Nov 2002

Source: Associated Press, April 28, 2002.

Montana Lab May Lead Bioterror Defense

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) -- A laboratory in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains is on track to become the federal government's fourth Biosafety Level 4 research facility, handling the world's most dangerous microbes to help develop defenses against bioterrorism.

Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a part of the National Institutes of Health, pioneered research into Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. It now has been approved for a $66 million expansion for bioterrorism research, including upgrades to the maximum security level. It will be the only Level 4 lab in the West.

James Musser, a biomedical researcher and a chief of one of the Rocky Mountain labs, said specifics of the expanded research in Hamilton have not been decided.

"Because of the limited space in a Biosafety Level 4 facility, one has to carefully choose exactly what kind of pathogens we're going to study,'' he said.

BioLevel 4 labs are the highest level security labs which, among other things, require workers to wear "spacesuit'' style contamination jumpers. The government currently has Level 4 labs at Fort Dietrich, Md., Bethesda, Md., and Atlanta. The nonprofit Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research operates one in San Antonio. Another Level 4 lab is planned at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

The new lab was planned before Sept. 11 and the string of anthrax attacks that followed, administrator Pat Stewart said. Rocky Mountain already was studying organisms that could be used in biological attacks, and Stewart said existing expertise at the Rocky Mountain complex is the main reason for building the new lab there.

Rocky Mountain Laboratories, in a neighborhood of well-kept homes at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains, began early in the 20th century. It now employs about 230 people and provides some of the best pay in Hamilton, a onetime timber town that is rapidly growing as a wilderness gateway and mountain retreat.

Officials have just begun conferring with architects and others involved in developing the new lab. For the community, information about the expansion came during a town meeting lab officials held in February.

"You have to view it as a positive thing,'' said pharmacist Wayne Hedman at Bitterroot Drug. "That is clean industry and a lot of the jobs are high-paying jobs.''

The new lab may add 50 to 65 positions, Stewart said.

Hedman said that besides the economic impact of lab employees, he likes the intellectual enhancement that world-class scientists and their associates bring to this community of 3,700 people.

The hazardous nature of the new research does not concern him.

"There's enough redundancy, enough backup, in that whole process that I feel very secure,'' Hedman said.

But bookseller Cyndy Gardner said that while she appreciates the Rocky Mountain employees' impact on community life, she questions why the new lab must be built in the "warm, friendly, family-oriented neighborhood'' where she is restoring a century-old home.

"They need to build it away from town,'' said Gardner, worried the lab could become a target for terrorists.

Stewart said there will be strengthened external security for all of the Rocky Mountain labs, with additional security features for the new building. Measures for dealing with hazards inside it will include airlock buffer zones, chemical decontamination and microfiltration of air.

Rocky Mountain Laboratories began during a much simpler time.

In 1910, a Bitterroot Valley camp served as the lab for researchers who found that ticks transmitted the disease now known as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In the 1920s, ticks were ground up at an abandoned school near Hamilton to make vaccine against the disease.

Some 20 years later, workers in the buildings that are part of today's lab complex, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, made vaccines that protected troops against typhus and yellow fever during World War II.

The agent that causes Lyme disease, another disorder transmitted by ticks, was identified at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in 1982.

Following the anthrax attacks last fall, the Bush Administration agreed to spend $100 million to renovate the 35-year-old Fort Collins, Colo., lab belonging to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 2006.

The enhanced Level 3 lab, which also operates near residential neighborhoods, conducts research on vector-born infectious diseases, such as Bubonic plague, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus, encephalitis, tularemia and Lyme Disease, many of which could be used as biological weapons. They all are diseases spread by arthropods, or mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, lice and flies.