by Sally Logue Post
BSL-3 Laboratory Provides New Opportunities for Texas Tech
Scientists can perform research related to biological pathogens and toxins that could impact human and animal health.
Texas Tech’s Biological Threat Research Laboratory will provide opportunities for Texas Tech researchers by providing the resources to perform both basic and applied research related to biological pathogens and toxins that impact human and animal health.
The Biological Threat Research Laboratory is not a large space, but it will provide big opportunities for Texas Tech researchers.
The new biosafety level three (BSL-3) lab gives the university the ability to perform both basic and applied research related to biological agents and toxins that have the potential to impact human and animal health.
“It is exciting that Texas Tech has developed this new facility that will immensely advance our biosecurity in West Texas,” said Robert V. Duncan, Texas Tech vice president for research. “Many of our leading researchers at Texas Tech are interested in understanding how disease crosses over from animal populations to humans, as most diseases do.”
The City of Lubbock Health Department had a similar facility for years, but when the city decided to discontinue the facility, city officials contacted Texas Tech.
“Texas Tech was able to utilize existing laboratory equipment and resources in the new facility,” said Steve Presley, laboratory director. “Most importantly to Texas Tech is that we’ve expanded on what the city was doing by introducing a research component to the BSL-3.”
Early Warning System
The lab will allow Texas Tech to function as a public resource for the identification and confirmation of biological samples for outbreaks of infectious diseases and other public health emergencies.
“If a hospital submits flu samples, we can determine if it is the normal seasonal flu predicted by the Centers for Disease Control or an unexpected strain,” said Presley.
The lab is much more than an influenza surveillance facility. It also can test for a variety of bacteria, parasites and viruses, such as West Nile virus and SARS coronavirus, among other emerging strains of infection.
“Many old diseases are making a comeback,” said Presley. “We’re seeing cases of dengue fever, Chagas disease and even bubonic plague in increasing numbers in Texas and across the country. All of these pathogens exist in nature and animals in our region.”
It is the transfer of diseases from animals to humans that is the focus of Presley’s own research. The World Health Organization reports that about 60 percent of the known infectious diseases can infect both humans and animals.
An associate professor of environmental toxicology, Presley and his research group are looking at routes and mechanisms of human exposure to animal-borne diseases. One project studies tularemia, which is commonly known as rabbit fever. Rodents, wild game and arthropods carry the bacteria. Presley is working to determine how this disease moves to humans through feral hog and deer populations, as well as ticks and deer flies.
In humans, tularemia can cause fever and lethargy–signs of blood poisoning–and in some cases, it can be fatal. Feral hog populations are increasing drastically in Texas, and hogs are being seen in small towns and city suburbs.
“With more human interaction with animals in the wild, the more likely people will be exposed to emerging diseases like tularemia,” said Presley. “It’s especially of concern for those who handle, clean or eat wild game. One part of our research is looking at the transmission dynamics between animals and humans, and how we can interrupt that cycle, so that humans are less likely to be exposed.”
The BSL-3 will allow Presley and other researchers to advance their research. In the past, Presley said he has come across what he believed to be tularemia in feral hogs. To confirm his suspicion, he had to send samples to the BSL-3 facility when it was operated by the City of Lubbock.
“The lab did confirm our suspicion, but we had to give the samples to the CDC and could not continue to work with them because we did not have an approved laboratory,” said Presley. “We have been limited to screening the animals for the presence of antibodies of certain pathogens. Now we can use whole blood and tissue to determine, first, if the disease really is present, and then look at any number of things, including if the disease is drug resistant and how virulent it may be.”
Safety and Security
The 1,600-square-foot BSL-3 suite is a highly secure facility–only authorized faculty and students are issued codes to enter, and every individual must follow exacting protocols.
“The facility is safe,” said Presley. “It is a highly restricted area with separate and redundant electrical, water and air-handling mechanical services. In a sense, it’s a building within a building. There are very specific procedures for donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE). It’s scripted, and one must follow the script exactly.”
The suite itself is circular in design. Personnel don PPEs, which consist of full body coverings, in an outer room. Once suited up, they enter a central room. Other rooms, located off of the central room, are used for activities such as sample processing. These rooms have further restrictions and can be entered with a second authorized code. Upon leaving the lab, each person participates in a decontamination process where everything is sterilized or destroyed.
For Presley and other researchers, the specific construction needs and the intricate safety and security procedures are well worth the effort.
“Texas Tech researchers dealing with biological agents and toxins have been limited due to the lack of a BSL-3 lab,” said Presley. “The BSL-3 facility has the potential to improve and expand the capabilities and scope of human and animal health-related research at Texas Tech.”
The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) develops environmental and health sciences research and education at Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
The institute's goal is to position Texas Tech as an internationally recognized force in the integration of environmental impact assessment of toxic chemicals with human health consequences, framed in the context of science-based risk assessment to support sound environmental policy and law.
Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Images courtesy of Neal Hinkle.