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Fri November 9, 2007
K-State Hopes New Biosecurity Research Will Help Win Federal Facility
The Department of Homeland Security announced recently that a site near K-State in Manhattan, Kan., was on the short list to be the home of a new multi-million dollar federal center designed to protect the nation's food supply and public health.
But while DHS is deciding between Kansas and four other sites, K-State is moving forward with its own high-level biosecurity research center.
Several years before 9/11, the university decided to capitalize on its expertise in veterinary science and food safety and enhance programs to protect against the threat of attack on agriculture.
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The grey and beige halls of the Biosecurity Research Institute leaves one with an eerie sense of fear and calm. When the facility is fully operational, sometime next year, scientists will work with some of the most lethal and contagious pathogens in the world, like anthrax and Avian Influenza.
That's why security systems are being checked and rechecked. Everything, from petri dishes to plastic bags, will be sterilized and resterilized. And air flow is key.
The director of the BRI, Jim Stack, a boyish-looking plant pathologist in wire-rim glasses and sneakers, talks about air flow the way a computer geek talks about routers.
"What you're hearing is flow of air. One of the most important features of a containment facility is air. You want to make sure air is always flowing in the direction of the highest contamination, so when you open a door, air flows into that space," Stack said. "And you can see this gauge, this is visual for a person coming in. That way I know more negative air, and it is OK for me to open this door. The direction of the air is going to flow in."
The read says Point 20, which represents 20 inches of water. The gauge is called a Magnahela gauge.
"It's a suction and measures the air pressure. It tells me there is more negative pressure in there than in here. The highest level of containment has the most negative pressure. When you open a door, air flows into that space."
It's clear working here's not for everyone, like if you're one who has a problem spending your day in a tiny, hermetically sealed lab where leaving for a bathroom break means a change of clothes and a shower.
"And you work for few hours, feel like a cup of coffee, shower out, go back in, suit up in scrubs, work until lunch, shower out, you shower 4 or 5 times in a day," Stack says.
Our next stop is a gymnasium-size lab with corrals and gates. Large animals can be tested here for vaccines and contagious diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease, the virus responsible for the destruction of six million head of livestock in Britain in 2001. A few spores of FMD dropped into a Kansas feedlot on a contaminated Kleenex could halt the export of U.S. beef and kill the Kansas economy. That's one reason, says Jim Stack, people in this region get it about biosecurity research.
"In Kansas, 36,000 jobs are directly linked to agriculture exports, so if you have the introduction of one of these things that stops movement, people lose their jobs," Stack says. "Ten billion dollars of the Kansas economy is linked to agriculture."
In a small office at the back of an old administration building, Jerry Jaax oversees research and compliance of biosafety programs at K-State.
A career army veterinarian and officer, he was at the center of experiments with the deadly Ebola virus in 1989. In and out of isolation in space suits, Jaax and a team of scientists, including his wife Nancy, did autopsies on infected African monkeys.
In the course of their work, Nancy was exposed to the virus. Science writer Richard Preston wrote of the harrowing story in his best selling thriller The Hot Zone. Here, Jaax reads from a signed copy in his office.
Settled on a quiet ranch outside Manhattan, Jaax says, easy access to information and globalization make bioterrorism a reality and programs like these at K-state essential.
"The ability and technology to manipulate organisms is widespread and available to people who are not necessarily even scientists it's a real threat," Jaax says.
Officials at K-State hope agroterrorism luminaries like Jerry Jaax and the Biosecurity Research Institute will tip DHS in favor of Kansas when it comes time to decide where to locate the new federal center. But Harley Moon, Professor Emeritus of Veterinary Pathology at Iowa State University in Ames, and for many years a leading expert in biosecurity, believes programs will count for only so much, and that politics will play a role as well.
"Just because one has been in this game prior to 9/11 certainly does not lead to a slam-dunk," says Moon. "There are a good number of vet schools in the country who had high quality research in infectious diseases prior to 9/11."
The Department of Homeland Security plans to announce where it will put its National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in early 2008.