University of Chicago microbiologists prepare for move to new laboratory

John Easton
Senior Science WriterThe University of Chicago Medicine

On Dec. 1, the United States Department of Energy notified the University of Chicago Medical Center that it had full approval to "commence research operations" at the newly constructed Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory, operated by the Medical Center to study the organisms that cause infectious disease. The Ricketts laboratory is located on land owned by the United States Department of Energy at Argonne National Laboratory.

Securing full approval meant passing rigorous inspections and fulfilling requirements mandated by the Department of Energy as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Select Agent Program.

"The express purpose and specific design of the laboratory is to generate the very best science and technology in a safe, state-of-the-art facility," said lab director Olaf Schneewind, professor and chair of microbiology at the University of Chicago and director of the Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research.

"Teams in the laboratory will develop and test drugs, vaccines and diagnostic devices to counter bioterrorism and study emerging infectious diseases," Schneewind said. "The lab will also provide the ideal setting for teaching the next generation of young scientists and technicians how to do productive and safe research on infectious disease."

In 2003, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health, named the University of Chicago as the lead institution for the GLRCE and awarded the center more than $35 million in research funding. The NIAID also awarded funds to the University to build a regional biocontainment facility at Argonne National Laboratory to support research conducted by the GLRCE. Additional support from the State of Illinois and other sources contributed to the project.

The Ricketts laboratory will house research on microbial agents that are considered either Risk Group 2 (agents that cause mild to moderate symptoms in humans, but are not life-threatening) or Risk Group 3 (agents that have the potential to cause lethal human infections, but have at least one effective treatment). It will not study microbes from Risk Group 4.

Besides performing research, the GLRCE and the Ricketts laboratory will act as a regional resource for public health officials, providing expertise, rapid diagnosis, support and advice about containment and treatment in the event of a bioterror event or the emergence of new disease-causing agents.

Small level-3 laboratories already existed at the University and Argonne, but at 54,100 gross square feet, the new laboratory will create a comprehensive, flexible environment enabling researchers to study several different pathogens at the same time.

A primary focus in designing and building the laboratory was safety. A design firm with extensive biosafety experience-Flad & Associates of Madison, Wis.-created the original plans, in collaboration with the scientific team and in consultation with the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, including local public safety sources.

All aspects of the design and construction had to meet stringent guidelines that will protect those who work in the laboratory as well as those who live nearby. Safety features include redundant mechanical systems (ventilation, electrical and other utilities), controlled airflow, HEPA-filtered exhaust, tightly controlled access to the building and multiple ways to isolate and disinfect specific areas.

Whenever possible, researchers will use experimental models of the microbes they study. These have been genetically modified to reduce the likelihood for human transmission and their ability to cause disease.

All laboratory personnel will undergo specific and intensive training and will be closely supervised by scientists who have experience working with these agents.

Operation of the laboratory will be routinely inspected by federal, state and local agencies.

The GLRCE pulls together research teams from 26 institutions in the six states in federally designated Region V. The research teams will involve more than 300 scientists, said Schneewind, including a core of more than 60 key researchers who specialize in microbiology, infectious diseases, public health, medicine, vaccine research and pharmacology, as well as related disciplines such as biochemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics and nanotechnology.

The Ricketts laboratory is named for the University of Chicago's Howard Taylor Ricketts (1871-1910), who discovered the organisms that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus.