BSL-3 facility will aid fight against bioterrorism

Laboratory researchers may soon be better able to help fight bioterrorist agents or infectious diseases that could be used against American citizens. A new biosafety analytical laboratory took a step toward reality this week when an environmental assessment was filed by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Oakland office.

Proposed for an area adjacent to Bldg. 361, the new facility would be known as — and permit the use of organisms allowed in — a Biosafety Level 3, or BSL-3 facility.

"This proposed facility," said Page Stoutland, deputy director of R Division, "would allow our scientists to conduct more sophisticated experiments on a wider array of microorganisms. We will be able to use the unique capabilities of the Laboratory to help us develop much needed biodetection capabilities. We’ll also be able to learn more about new emerging diseases."

The proposed $1.5 million, 1,500 square-foot facility would include three BSL-3 lab rooms and be built in accordance with guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health. It would be operated primarily by the Biology and Biotechnology Research Program directorate (BBRP) for another Lab directorate, Nonproliferation, Arms Control and International Security (NAI).

The Laboratory has been asked by the CDC to develop DNA signatures for a number of pathogens to improve detection and understanding of those diseases.

However, as the Laboratory currently does not have a BSL-3 facility — and can’t work with live organisms designated for use in such facilities — the work of Livermore scientists for countering terrorism and some infectious diseases is slowed, according to Bert Weinstein, acting associate director for the Biology and Biotechnology Research Program, or BBRP.

For a number of years, Lab scientists have conducted research — and operated — biomedical facilities at the lower levels of biosafety one and two. The previous research by Livermore scientists has already proven valuable in the development of DNA signatures that speed detection of various microorganisms and can help save lives.

This research is done in collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory, the CDC, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two examples of DNA signatures developed through this process are for Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, and Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague. Both plague and anthrax can be produced for criminal purposes or occur as natural diseases.

To conduct research on other organisms, such as valley fever and rabbit fever, Lab scientists have had to travel to other BSL-3 facilities in California and even other states, Weinstein noted.

"Since we started working with plague and anthrax in our existing BSL-2 facility we have found we can progress two to three times faster in developing tests for detecting pathogens than we could before," Weinstein said.

Once DNA signatures developed by Livermore scientists and other researchers are approved by the CDC, they are then distributed to public health laboratories around the nation.

The first use of a Livermore DNA signature to detect a public health disease in the environment took place in May 2001 when plague was found in a small community northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Naturally-occurring outbreaks of plague often hit the Southwest region of the U.S., particularly Arizona and New Mexico, in the spring and summer months. While tests for plague have usually required seven to 10 days to confirm, the Lab’s DNA signatures — used by Northern Arizona University researchers — confirmed the presence of the disease within four hours. Rapid detection of plague can save lives, as the survival rate of the disease is nearly 100 percent with the prompt treatment of antibiotics.

"With DNA signatures, we are working toward faster identification of these diseases, some of which, like anthrax, have symptoms that can be confused with the flu," Weinstein said.

With a BSL-3 facility, Lab researchers could have access to small amounts of the microorganisms that cause two diseases endemic to California — valley fever and rabbit fever.

Lab scientists plan to develop a DNA signature for Francisella tularensis, the bacteria that causes rabbit fever and is named for Tulare County.

"Since 2000, Lab researchers have worked with a number of strains of anthrax and plague for the NNSA’s Chemical and Biological National Security Program, Weinstein said, adding the work has been conducted safely and in full compliance all applicable security, health and other administrative requirements and guidelines.

"We now have the track record and trained personnel that make us confident we can conduct high-quality and safe research with a BSL-3 facility," he said.

The environmental assessment process, which opened Wednesday, runs until Aug. 23. If there is a determination that the BSL-3 facility would have a minimal impact, the project could go out to bid in September or October and be built by March or April, 2003.

One of the options being strongly considered for a Livermore BSL-3 facility is be to purchase a pre-fabricated building. These buildings are available from a number of different manufacturers.

July 26, 2002


Stephen Wampler