September 29, 2022

VUMC lands grant to build top-line biosafety facility

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is set to construct a state-of-the-art BioSafety Level 3 (BSL3) facility for research involving the COVID-19 virus, anthrax and other dangerous microorganisms.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been awarded a nearly $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to construct a state-of-the-art BioSafety Level 3 (BSL3) facility for research involving the COVID-19 virus, anthrax and other dangerous microorganisms.

VUMC currently has two BSL3 labs, but they are small, outdated and can accommodate only a few investigators. As a shared resource, the new facility, called MICRO, will be open to multiple researchers.

“It will allow us to work on pathogens that pose a significant threat to global and regional public health that we have never been able to work on before,” said the grant’s principal investigator, Eric Skaar, PhD, MPH, who directs the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation (VI4).

Building MICRO will require a close partnership with the NIH through three years of design and construction, said Skaar, the Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology.

When the renovation of about 3,500 square feet of existing space is completed, the facility will include three BSL3 suites with separate entrances and seven procedure rooms capable of securely containing multiple organisms at the second-highest biosafety level.

In addition to SARS-CoV-2, these organisms include Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB, the rabies virus, and Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium, which with other “select agents” have been designated in a special class by the U.S. government primarily because of the threat they pose to biosecurity.

“Development of MICRO is an important and exciting next step to support infectious disease research as an institutional strategic priority,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC’s Chief Scientific and Strategy Officer and holder of the Brock Family Directorship in Career Development.

“The new facility will significantly advance and expand our capacity for discovery in microbial pathogenesis, emerging agents and immunology,” Pietenpol said. “I thank Dr. Skaar for assembling such a qualified team to drive this project and bring new research capabilities to Vanderbilt.”

Crucial to the awarding of the highly competitive C06 grant (# C06OD034125) through the NIH Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) was the support of the VUMC Office of Planning, Design, Construction, the Office of Clinical and Research Safety, the Office of Research and key VUMC faculty members.

Their efforts, and a substantial investment in the project pledged by the Medical Center, reflect the “incredible institutional commitment that accompanied our application,” Skaar said.

MICRO will be equipped with biological safety cabinets, dedicated air handling units and exhaust filtration systems to prevent exposure to biohazards. Research personnel may also need to wear scrub suits, masks and respirators depending on the pathogen being studied.

Access to the laboratory will be highly restricted and controlled, with entry through two self-closing, interlocked doors.

The new facility will enable VUMC to partner with the University of Tennessee, Meharry Medical College and other institutions to advance BSL3 work across the southeastern United States.

A modern BSL3 facility can aid the public health response to a pandemic caused by a previously unknown, emerging virus, for example, by enabling investigators to develop diagnostic tests rapidly and safely, as well as countermeasure vaccines, antivirals and therapeutic and prophylactic monoclonal antibodies.

“With increased globalization, ease of world travel, and global warming changing ecosystems, additional infectious organisms will emerge that we have never seen before,” Skaar said. “(We) need the capability to respond to these organisms, and MICRO facility will provide that.”

MICRO also will serve important training and recruitment roles, he added.

“It takes a very specific skill set to be able to work at high biosecurity,” Skaar said. “It’s a skill set that is becoming increasingly important as these new agents emerge. We’ll now have the ability to train post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in BSL3-level investigations.”

Skaar said a widely accessible BSL3 facility will help VUMC recruit “the best and brightest” faculty to work on the world’s most important pathogens, including tuberculosis, which kills more people globally than any other infectious disease.

“For the Medical Center I think it’s a tremendous boost,” he said.

VUMC faculty who contributed to the grant application included Mark Denison, MD, an internationally known authority on coronavirus biology, James Crowe Jr., MD, a leader in the development of monoclonal antibodies targeting multiple pathogens, and Timothy Sterling, MD, a widely regarded investigator and director of the Vanderbilt Tuberculosis Center.

Denison holds the Edward Claiborne Stahlman Chair in Pediatric Physiology and Cell Metabolism, Crowe is the Ann Scott Carell Professor, and professor of Pediatrics and of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, and Sterling holds the David E. Rogers Professorship in Medicine.

Other key contributors included Niki Smith, director of VUMC Space Management, Nicole Hermo, MArch, project manager in the VUMC Office of Planning, Design, Construction, Cindy Hager Nochowicz, senior research specialist in the Division of Infectious Diseases, New York City-based Blair+Mui Dowd Architects, Phoenix Design Group in Nashville, Page/SST Planners in Washington, D.C. and VUMC institutional biological safety officer Sheya Jones, MA.

From the VUMC Office of Research, Skaar cited the efforts of the office’s senior director, Susan Meyn, Amy Martinez, PhD, scientific program officer, and Katelyn Poole, PhD, scientific program manager.

“This would not have happened without tremendous support from the Office of Research,” he said.