Lab Enables Researchers to Work Safely With Deadly Agents

Last Updated on May 7, 2014 at 4:53 pm

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

Tucked away below ground on The University of Texas at El Paso campus lies a peculiar laboratory few have laid eyes on.

Equipped with a ventilation system generating negative room pressure, air can enter, but not exit unless sterilized, and accidental spills won’t leak out from the facility either. Waste produced in the 2,000-square-foot laboratory never sees the light of day and is decontaminated at 212 degrees Fahrenheit before it is disposed of by incineration.

These are the precautions necessary for UTEP’s Biosafety Level 3 lab (BSL 3) to operate safely, said Doug Watts, Ph.D., who oversees the facility and studies the West Nile virus within its walls. According to Watts, the availability of a BSL 3 lab at UTEP has made it possible to expand the infectious disease research program by enabling research on agents that would otherwise not be possible.

In the United States, there are four safety levels that have been established according to the potential danger biological agents may have to researchers or the surrounding environment. A level three containment is a pathogen that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease after inhalation or puncture, which includes West Nile, tuberculosis and yellow fever.

“In BSL 3 labs, you start working with things that can kill you and for which there are not many vaccines and therapeutics,” Watts said. “So no one works in the lab unless they’re trained, which can take anywhere from six to eight weeks.”

Charles Spencer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences, has just completed his training and is getting ready to “go hot.”

He’ll be studying Francisella tularensis, a bacterium transmitted from animals to humans via tick or deer fly bites, blood exposure while handling infected animals, or inhalation. Once exposed, humans develop tularemia, which targets the skin, eyes, lungs and lymph nodes. If left untreated, the disease is fatal.

Because of its ability to infect humans by mere inhalation and its environmental stability, Francisella tularensis was bioweaponized during the Cold War, but never deployed. It is currently classified by the government as a Class A agent that could potentially “pose a severe threat to public health and safety.”

“There are concerns that between increased encounters between animals and humans, and mutational change — either by natural genetic change or bioweaponization — that the bacterium could be altered to spread between humans quite easily,” Spencer said. “And then we could end up with a pandemic on our hands.”

Over the course of the next year, the biologist will analyze the natural killer T-cells he believes could be a potential target for a therapy or treatment of tularemia.

When humans contract tularemia, the body produces a strong inflammatory response against the bacteria that leads to the symptoms and potential mortality of the disease.

“It’s the immune response against the bacteria that’s what ends up killing the host,” Spencer said.

But recently, he has observed animals deficient in natural killer T-cells become sicker than their counterparts and more likely to succumb to disease.

“We want to know why they get sicker,” he said. “Do natural killer T-cells regulate the inflammatory system?”

If so, it might be possible to produce a drug that stimulates natural killer T-cells to be more responsive and control the inflammatory response in humans with tularemia.

In a separate chamber in the lab from Spencer, Watts will continue his studies to better understand the epidemiology of West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has infected more than 2,000 people in the United States so far this year.

Through his research, Watts specifically hopes to advise the City of El Paso’s Department of Public Health on risks that lead to human infection and on the specific mosquitoes that carry the virus to enable the department to employ more effective methods of control.

“There are about fifteen species of mosquitos in the El Paso region,” he said. “We’ve been able to show that it’s probably only one or two species out of the 15 that transmits West Nile virus.”

Still in the process of confirming his results, Watts says with this information, city health officials can use a particular pesticide that’s tailored to control the species of mosquito transmitting the virus in the Paso del Norte region.

Although Watts is constantly in and out of the lab, he stresses the importance of getting trained to work safely in a BSL 3 lab.

He and UTEP’s Environmental Health and Safety Office (EH&S) have developed training modules that teach faculty, staff and students how to correctly enter and exit the lab and how to properly use its equipment, such as the biosafety cabinets, centrifuges, incubators, refrigerators, freezers and autoclaves. In addition, personnel entering the lab are required to wear protective equipment that includes a wrap-around gown, two pairs of surgical gloves, two pairs of shoe covers, respiratory protection and goggles. Additional equipment may be necessary if researchers are working with agents that pose an increased risk, like tuberculosis.

The only laboratory with a higher containment level than the BSL 3 is the BSL 4, which is designated for dangerous agents that have a high mortality rate and for which there are no approved vaccines or treatments. Faculty interested in working with BSL 4 agents should contact the UT Medical Branch at Galveston, which houses the only maximum-security laboratory on a campus in the United States.

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