Duke Medical Takes Local Approach to Biological Threats

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Public health

Scientists at Duke University Medical Center are not waiting for avian flu, SARS or West Nile virus to wreak havoc on the local community, nor are they waiting, unprepared, for terrorists to attack with biological agents such as anthrax or smallpox.

Instead, they are leading a national effort to develop the next generation of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests to protect citizens against such emerging threats to public health.

At the heart of this effort, Duke is the first institution in the nation to open a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"Our goal is to protect the public from biological threats, whether they occur naturally or are propagated by a terrorist act," said the building's director, Richard Frothingham, M.D.

"Because we live in a global society, infections that arise anywhere in the world can quickly become relevant to us," Frothingham added. "We may think of them as far away, but they do affect us locally."

Dedication ceremonies will be held at the new building on Friday, Feb. 16, 2007, from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. The festivities, which will include tours of the facility, will begin with a breakfast and welcoming remarks by Frothingham.

The new laboratory is the first of 13 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories to be constructed nationwide with NIH funds. The 33,145-square-foot laboratory, which Duke has named the Global Health Research Building, is located on Duke's campus at the corner of Research Drive and Erwin Road. The building's $22.4 million construction cost was underwritten by $16.3 million from NIH and $6.1 million from Duke University.

In addition to housing specialized research equipment, the facility will provide additional resources during public health crises, such as a flu pandemic, when local diagnostic laboratories may be overwhelmed. The building also will serve as a venue for educational programs in community safety, infectious disease, immunology and public health.

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"It is a certainty that new and changing pathogens will continue to challenge our ability to rapidly and effectively respond to protect our residents," said Brian Letourneau, Durham county public health director. "This important new regional facility gives Durham access to the most sophisticated tools necessary to quickly identify agents and emerging pathogens that will threaten our community."

Constructed under the most stringent interpretation of federal guidelines, the Global Health Research Building employs a variety of security and safety measures to protect the surrounding community. The building is surrounded by a fence, monitored by security guards, and supported by pillars capable of withstanding hurricanes and tornadoes. Inside, the building is divided into security zones, with access granted only to authorized personnel.

Other measures include shower facilities that workers will use to remove potential contamination before they leave the building and epoxy-coated walls and floors that prevent absorption of biological materials on surfaces. Work is carried out within biological cabinets whose air is individually filtered.

An emergency generator provides 100 percent back-up power to the entire building to ensure that a power outage will not compromise the measures in place.

Before any new research is undertaken, a careful ethical and safety review is conducted by a panel of experts in biomedical ethics, policy and law drawn from universities in the Southeast, led by Robert Cook-Deegan, M.D. director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

Building personnel will undergo federal background checks and will be trained in handling dangerous pathogens. Workers will wear personal protective equipment, including seamless gowns, gloves, foot covers and respirators, to guard themselves, and others, from contamination.

"We have devised multiple, overlapping layers of safety and security measures in order to provide the highest level of assurance," Frothingham said.

The new building will be available not only to Duke researchers but also to NIH-funded researchers at North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and other research facilities throughout the Southeast.

Researchers will use the facility to conduct Biosafety Levels 2 and 3 research. Among their efforts, they will study pox viruses, which are relatives of the deadly smallpox virus, plague, influenza and tuberculosis. No research will be conducted on more dangerous and exotic microbes, such as Ebola virus, as such research is restricted to Biosafety Level 4 facilities.

"New viruses like SARS emerge every few years, so it is imperative that we improve our understanding of how viruses work, replicate, and infect people so we are ready to protect people when a new virus does arise," Frothingham said.

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