New lab at Tufts School of Medicine to focus on tuberculosis research
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 07:09
The Tufts University School of Medicine this summer announced plans to build a 1,700 square-foot biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) research facility in order to enhance the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology’s ability to study infectious diseases.
The facility, which will be called the Arnold 8 Biosafety Laboratory, will be housed in the existing Arnold Wing of the School of Medicine’s Biomedical Research and Public Health Building at 136 Harrison Avenue in Boston. In the immediate future, the faculty expects to use the lab exclusively to study tuberculosis (TB), according to John Leong, department chair and professor of molecular biology and microbiology.
“Our overall plans are to study [the] basic biology of the organism [that causes TB] and the means by which it causes disease,” Leong told the Daily in an email.
He said that the ultimate goal is to develop new avenues for treatment or prevention of the disease.
The current schedule calls for construction of the lab to begin this fall and for the lab to be operational next year, according to Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler. The university must still get approval from the Boston Public Health Commission before opening the facility.
The estimated cost of the lab is about $3.5 million, Thurler said, and will be borne entirely by the university.
“The funding comes from monies set aside by the School of Medicine and the university for various special purposes,” Thurler said.
The BSL-3 designation comes from specifications set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which classify biosafety labs as levels one through four, according to the School of Medicine website. The level indicates a lab’s ability to limit exposure to infectious diseases through its safety features.
Leong explained that while Tufts operates several BSL-2 labs, only BSL-3 or BSL-4 facilities allow researchers to study dangerous airborne pathogens like TB.
BSL-3 labs have built-in safety systems to minimize the risk of infection for laboratory workers, he said.
“Without a BSL-3 laboratory at Tufts School of Medicine, we cannot begin a research program in TB on this campus,” Leong said.
In addition to sealed floors, walls, ceilings and windows, the lab will include specialized air filtration systems, round-the-clock monitoring systems and back-up generators to ensure that safety systems continue to operate in the event of a power outage, according to the School of Medicine website.
The School of Medicine in July hired Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology Bree Aldridge to be the first investigator in the Arnold 8 Biosafety Lab, Leong said. The university aims to search for a second investigator once the lab is operational.
Aldridge plans to use the new lab to focus on finding more effective treatments for TB, explaining that the present treatment course lasts a minimum of six months.
“At Tufts, we are assembling a team of interdisciplinary researchers across our campuses to come together with the goal of transforming the way we study and design treatments against pathogenic mycobacteria,” she said.
TB constitutes a serious global pandemic, Aldridge said, infecting about a third of the world’s population and causing nearly two million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization website.
“Over the past decade, several new drugs – which were developed in BSL-3 laboratories similar to the one we plan – have entered clinical trials, and we are seeing a drop in the death rate,” Aldridge said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done. We have not improved the efficacy of the treatment course in decades, we do not have adequate treatments for drug-resistant strains and we lack rapid diagnostic tools.”
Leong said the lab will give highly trained students the opportunity to conduct research of global significance within a cutting-edge facility.
“Some students, most typically experienced graduate students, will have the opportunity to do hands-on research on one of the world’s most important microorganisms,” he said.
Leong believes the lab will boost the university’s research profile.
“TB is an important topic, both for global health and in the research community, and it is important that Tufts have a footprint in the field,” he said.