Colorado State University Regional Biocontainment Lab First to Start Research

The Rocky Mountain Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at Colorado State University has formally received "select agent" research approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the first lab of its kind in the country to begin studying these highly regulated bioterrorism agents.

Construction on the $30 million laboratory on Colorado State’s Foothills Research Campus ended in October. Last fall, a biosafety team led by Dr. Robert Ellis, CSU’s biosafety officer and a microbiology professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, began the process of adding the 38,000-square-foot building on the university’s Foothills Campus – one of the most technically advanced laboratories of its kind – to the CDC Select Agent Program.

The university is among the world’s leaders in researching West Nile virus, drug-resistant tuberculosis, yellow fever, dengue, hantavirus, plague, tularemia and other diseases. The new facility provides the university with improved and safer equipment to research ways to protect the United States from bioterrorism and emerging diseases such as avian influenza. Researchers will investigate and develop new treatments and vaccines to protect against these agents.

With the recent CDC approval, researchers in mid-May can begin research in the Rocky Mountain Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at biosafety level 3. The university already has select agent approval for some of its research, but CSU’s new laboratory is the first of the 13 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories and two National Biocontainment Laboratories around the nation to receive select agent approval.

"Development of new vaccines, drugs and tests are critical to global health, particularly when infectious diseases are responsible for most deaths throughout the world," said Tony Frank, provost and senior vice president at Colorado State. "This important CDC recognition means we can take successful collaborations with such organizations as the CDC, the Gates Foundation and others to the next level to solve some of these major health issues."

The CDC regulates the possession, use and transfer of select agents and toxins that have the potential to threaten public health and safety. The CDC Select Agent Program registers and rigorously inspects all U.S. laboratories and other entities that possess, use or transfer a select agent or toxin.

"We have to have an excellent environment in which to work with these agents," said Ellis, who is president-elect of the American Biological Safety Association. The center encompasses the research occurring at the Foothills campus and the new laboratory. "To get select agent status, our facility and procedures were examined by a team of CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors who looked at our facility and examined our plans for conducting our research. We were required to submit a 600-page document just to request the inspection."

Ellis works closely with Ralph Smith, director of the university’s Infectious Disease Research Center and also a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology.

Colorado State’s infectious disease research is world-class, said Bill Farland, vice president for Research. In 2007, the university unveiled its new infectious disease Supercluster, called MicroRx, to expedite efforts to transfer research into the commercial marketplace.

"With nearly $300 million in annual research expenditures, Colorado State University is one of the top research universities in the nation," Farland said. "Our infectious disease research and collaborations are part of President Larry Penley’s overall plan to take our strengths and tackle major problems with practical solutions on a global scale."

The new Rocky Mountain Regional Biocontainment Laboratory complements similar infectious disease research already underway at the CDC facility and the USDA laboratory on the Foothills Campus as well as at the university’s existing BioEnvironmental Research Building and its Arthropod-borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

The lab also houses the Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is a multi-disciplinary intellectual collaboration of researchers from Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The Regional Center of Excellence focuses on zoonotic emerging diseases, which are animal diseases that are transmissible to humans.