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Texas Biomed starting process for new lab to study lethal infections
June 22, 2017

Texas Biomed's expanded level 4 laboratory would be built to the industry's tightest safety precautions. Texas Biomed has the only privately owned level 4 lab in the country. Houston Chronicle file photo

By Jesse Pound, San Antonio Express-News

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute announced preliminary approval for a new and expanded "level 4" laboratory, built to the industry's tightest safety precautions to study the world's most lethal infectious diseases.

The new "biosafety level 4 facility," BSL-4 for short, will allow the institute to take in millions of dollars in additional research, said Jean Patterson, scientist and chair of the BSL-4 taskforce. The institute already has a level 4 lab, but it has been operating at maximum capacity for the past several years and has turned away nearly $40 million in research work as a result, Patterson said.

"We really sort of got bunched up about 2013. 2014 is when we were really turning away a lot of work," Patterson said. "And after that, it's almost $10 million a year."

The level 4 lab allows scientists to work with infectious diseases for which there is no known cure, such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever. Last year, Texas Biomedical and the Southwest Research Institute received a $3.4 million contract from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to study Ebola.

There is no timetable for the expansion of the level 4 capabilities, which makes up almost 40 percent of the Texas Biomedical's operations, said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, the institute's president and CEO. The exact location, design and cost of the project is not yet known.

"We're not at a point of having the scope and the timing established," Schlesinger said. Schlesinger assumed his current position May 31 but said the wheels were in motion for the approval of the new facility before he took over.

Texas Biomedical has the only privately owned level 4 lab in the country, Patterson said. There are roughly a dozen such labs owned by the federal government, including one in Galveston.

When it was built in 2000, the San Antonio lab was only the third level 4 lab in the country, Patterson said. The growth of labs has mirrored an increased awareness in the U.S. about infectious diseases in foreign countries.

"Concerns about infectious disease threats and outbreaks are increasing since the 1980s, and it's anticipated this will just continue in the future," Schlesinger said.

Patterson attributed an increase in knowledge of foreign outbreaks due to the internet and increasing international travel to the growth of infectious disease research.

"Not only do we look in to see what's going on in the places we're going to go, but we tend to bring it back with us," Patterson said.


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