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Illumination magazine.
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A researcher reflected in the stainless steel walls of a walk-in autoclave, a chamber where high pressure steam sterilizes carts loaded with equipment.

In a world plagued by the threat of pandemic influenza, flesh-eating bacteria, multi-drug resistant infections, and potential terror attacks using exotic contagions, the construction of a “biocontainment laboratory” at MU is bound to conjure notions of moon-suited scientists wearing eerie facemasks with military escorts hovering nearby.

It’s the sort of image author Michael Crichton made famous forty years ago this year, with his hit novel-turned-movie, The Andromeda Strain, about a deadly virus from outer space that stumps a group of scientists after wiping out a desert town.

Rest assured, say researchers at MU’s facility, there is nothing to fear — except perhaps the costs of not investigating the potentially deadly pathogens safely contained with the $18-million Regional Biocontainment Laboratory.

Battling the Bugs 

The lab was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. When the agency held a nationwide competition in 2007 to expand what faciilty director and chief scientist George Stewart terms “America’s biocontainment infrastructure,” they found at MU a hotbed of comparative medical activity. Not only could MU offer a veterinary school, a medical school, and a college of agriculture in close proximity to one another, but also related facilities such as the University’s Veterinary Diagnostics Lab and the National Swine Research Center, RBL’s next-door neighbor.

This interdepartmental accessibility is one important reason that MU has become a center of comparative medicine, Stewart says. “NIH saw this development in the number of our publications in top research journals and the ongoing collaborations we enjoy.”

Regional Biocontainment Laboratory staff scientist Deborah Anderson and her husband Paul, who manages the three-story, 30,000-square-foot facility, relocated to MU from Chicago. They made the move in part, they admit, to escape a brutal commute to the biocontainment lab they managed for the University of Chicago. But the same advantages that attracted NIH also appealed to them.

“There’s no question that the comparative medicine program here is unique,” says Deborah Anderson. “Having the veterinary diagnostic lab right next door, for instance, is a real plus.”   

Anderson specializes in Yersinia pestis, the plague bug that nearly wiped out Europe during the Middle Ages. Her work is an example of the types of pathogens researchers at the facility will be working to defeat.

Once known as Black Death, bubonic plague is a flea-transmitted Yersinia pestis infection that swells patients’ lymph nodes into “buboes.” It has claimed nearly 200 million lives in several major pandemics over the centuries. Some of these deaths resulted from the very sorts of terror tactics the MU biocontainment lab is meant to deter. The Imperial Japanese Army, for example, used Y. pestis during the second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, releasing infected fleas over Chinese soldiers. Pneumonic plague is a lesser-known but more virulent form of the Y. pestis lung infection.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.


Illumination home. Spring 2009 Table of Contents.