The University of Wyoming will now be able to research pathogens that cause dangerous wildlife diseases
Housed in the back of the Wyoming State Vet Lab (WSVL) in Laramie is the University of Wyoming Biocontainment Facility. It's brand new and hums along to the tune of the expensive machinery designed to keep the place safe.
"What makes the facility unique is all of the engineering that went into building it so that we could contain any of these pathogens and protect the people working with them, as well as our community and our environment because they pose a risk to human and animal health," said Lab Director Elizabeth Case.
The lab is state of the art and received its certification from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a biosafety level three laboratory (BSL-3) in October, which means researchers will be able to study certain pathogens that can spread through the air.
"And so you have to really engineer the air handling, and the respiratory protection requirements are much higher, and you also physically have to wear a lot more personal protective equipment head to toe to work safely in that context," she said.
The facility was dedicated in November 2010, but experienced a lot of setbacks.
"Especially being out here in Laramie, a little bit isolated, it's not exactly easy to get the contractors out here with the experience needed to get that work done," Case said. "So in addition to just building the space and making sure that all of the containment is functional, we also needed to go through an elaborate process with the CDC in order to obtain the registration required in order to allow us to do the work that we want to do."
According to Case, they're planning to study the bacteria that cause wildlife diseases in Wyoming like Q fever, plague, and brucellosis. Brucellosis, which can be spread to cattle from infected bison or elk, can cause cattle to spontaneously abort their calves and can devastate herd numbers.
"In addition to that, brucellosis poses a threat to human health," said Case. "It causes a very severe disease that is actually systemic throughout the body and it can become chronic."
The facility has two separate labs, each with different equipment depending on what kind of pathogens are being studied. There's also a room oufitted with cages and equipment needed for doing research with animals, though there aren't any plans for that yet.
The lab will be available both to researchers from the UW community and to external ones, like the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and it's able to work with more kinds of pathogens than most can.
"These laboratory facilities are scattered around the nation. But one of the things that's special about ours is that we are registered with the CDC to allow work with select agents and not every biosafety level three facility has that capability," said Case.
The lab is able to handle these more highly regulated pathogens, like Yersinia pestis, which causes plague, because it has a lot of safety redundancies and security measures in place. In order to get into any room, you have to have the right clearance level and scan in with a badge. And everyone who works in the lab has to pass an FBI background check. Every room is sealed and uses an airlock system to keep air, and any potential pathogens, from flowing out of it. Each room also has its own HEPA filter - sometimes multiple.
"The other thing that's unique about this facility in terms of the way it was built is that we have the wastewater treatment system, and we also have the vaporized hydrogen peroxide decontamination system," Case said. "And those actually exceed the requirements put in place by the CDC."
Big fans in each room can spread aerosolized hydrogen peroxide throughout the lab to decontaminate all surfaces at a moment's notice. It will also be run routinely as a preventative measure.
The wastewater treatment system has been in use at the State Vet Lab for over a decade, sanitizing everything that goes down the drain with high heat before it joins the town's sewage system. Everything that leaves the biosecurity lab will be inactivated and sterilized before it leaves. The lab has several new autoclaves which use extreme heat and pressure to kill any pathogens. There's also a sanitization bath that containers can soak in before they're removed from the lab. Another new addition is the BSL-3 necropsy suite.
"This necropsy suite is designed to help us serve the National Animal Laboratory Health Network. If there was say, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, we would need a way to get those animals in and test them. We have this necropsy table which can actually hold and lift a full-sized bison if we needed," said Case.
This necropsy suite will supplement the existing suite so the WSVL can handle higher-level outbreaks.
A sealed pass-through window allows samples to be passed from the suite into a lab for study. There's also a lab set up to house animals so researchers can study diseases in vitro or vaccines. There are no current plans for it yet, but
The lab will be open to the public for a tour in the near future.