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September 27, 2007

Center for Vaccine Research opens

A new Pitt center will enable the University to expand its research into health threats caused by naturally occurring outbreaks of infectious disease or acts of bioterrorism.

Pitt’s new Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), housed on the 8th and 9th floors of Biomedical Science Tower 3, comprises the University’s vaccine research laboratory and a regional biocontainment laboratory — the second to open of 13 in the nation funded through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Prior to Monday’s ribbon cutting for the center, CVR director Donald Burke explained: “Our long-term vision here at the University is that of a comprehensive program to span from basic bench research through clinical trials to field distribution of vaccines.”

The center now is recruiting faculty and expects to bring in a half-dozen new scientific teams over the next two years, said Burke, who also is Pitt’s associate vice chancellor for global health and dean of the Graduate School of Public Health.

When fully staffed, 100-150 people on campus will be working on vaccine development, he said.

Initially, work at CVR will focus on tuberculosis, dengue fever and influenza, both because they pose global health threats and because Pitt scientists have expertise in studying those diseases, said Burke. Researchers at the center also plan collaborations to develop and evaluate new vaccines against bioterrorism and biodefense threats, he said.

“Infectious organisms are never going to go away,” said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, enumerating some of the health threats that have arisen in just the past several decades: HIV, SARS, West Nile virus, H5N1 avian flu, bacteria such as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), E. coli O157 and anthrax.

“Just that small list of agents less than 25 years of age demonstrates just what a challenge we will continue to face when it comes to infectious agents both naturally occurring and manmade,” he said.

“The creation of the CVR and the availability of the biocontainment laboratory will surely allow us to study and prepare for both naturally occurring outbreaks and — we hope not — but if they do occur, for acts of bioterrorism,” Levine said.

NIAID was directed by the federal government to address biological threats in the aftermath of an anthrax outbreak that was spread through the postal system in 2001, said Michael G. Kurilla, director of NIAID’s office of biodefense research affairs and associate director of biodefense product development.

Kurilla said NIAID is focusing on high-priority threats such as smallpox and anthrax and will continue to address other threats such as botulism, plague, tularemia and hemorrhagic fevers such as ebola and Marburg virus.

In addition, “Avian influenza still remains a smoldering problem that at any time could change from the animal-human transmission and convert to a sustained human-to-human transmission which would have a mass impact on global economic and public health concerns here and abroad,” Kurilla said.

Burke noted that the regional biocontainment laboratory (RBL) is designed at NIH biosafety level 3 (BSL-3), “So there are certain agents that we cannot handle here and will not handle here. Those include smallpox and ebola and some of the others that require BSL-4 containment.” The BSL-3 designation applies to labs where work is done with pathogens that may cause serious or deadly disease when inhaled.

Kelly Stefano Cole, associate director of the RBL in charge of its day-to-day operations, said although the RBL is larger (27,300 square feet), it is not the only BSL-3 lab at Pitt. Others are in Scaife Hall, Hillman Cancer Center, Starzl BST and another already operates in BST3.

Burke said the key component of BSL-3 is containment. Outlining the security and safety features included in the new lab, he said the building is guarded and a key card is required to enter the facility. In addition, researchers must use a fingerprint bioindicator for access to individual rooms. Air is filtered before it enters and when it leaves the facility, and water is filtered before it leaves. Burke said effluent waste is inactivated then sent to a holding tank for another inactivation to ensure it is non-infectious.

Located on the 8th floor of BST3, the RBL essentially is a building within a building with its own air, water and power systems serving 15 labs in seven suites. Workers enter the containment area via locker rooms where they don scrubs, then proceed to an airlock area to put on gowns and respirators. A separate exit room is equipped with showers for use when workers leave.

Workers receive special training and must have clearance from the FBI. “There are multiple levels of safety built in,” Burke said.

The $28.8 million construction cost of the laboratory was covered by $21.6 million in NIAID funding and $7.2 million from the University.

Vaccine research laboratory investigators already are at work on the 9th floor, which houses open-style BSL-2 level laboratories, but the RBL is not yet in operation.

Located on the 8th floor, the RBL still must undergo commissioning in which outside experts will verify that everything is working properly. Burke said a “shakedown” phase will follow, in which the lab will operate, albeit not with level-3 microbes.

“We’ll be working with the BSL-2 microbes for a couple of months until we are confident that we have all of our procedures and everything working as it should,” he said, adding that it is hoped the lab will be fully operational at BSL-3 levels by February or March.

Recalling Pitt’s history in vaccine research as home to Jonas Salk, Kurilla sees Pitt at the forefront of new developments. “In the same way that the polio vaccine of the past could be seen to actually replace the iron lung, we envision new concepts in vaccination and immunology that will lead to whole revolutions in not only how we create vaccines, but how we make vaccines and how we distribute vaccines,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 3

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