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High Containment Labs: Research in Spacesuits


Breakthrough discoveries require sophisticated science. Sophisticated science is conducted every day at Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. As experts in infectious diseases, our scientists are searching for new diagnostics, treatments and cures for a wide array of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites – from pathogens that cause known scourges like malaria – to emerging illnesses like Zika.

Since 2000, Texas Biomed has been home to a Biosafety Level 4 lab – one of fewer than 10 in the country — and the only one not affiliated with a university. The BSL4 is home to the some of the world’s most intractable health problems – diseases for which there is no cure. Like the hemorrhagic fever caused by Ebola virus. Ricardo Carrion, Ph.D., is the director of Maximum Containment Contract Research.

“The focus of the government is to develop cures, therapies, vaccines, something to prevent the disease, and stockpile those in case of an event, either a manmade event – a terrorist attack – or a naturally occurring event like what we saw in 2014 with the Ebola outbreak and how we had individuals come to the United States with Ebola and infect Americans,” explained Ricardo Carrion, Ph.D., Director of Maximum Containment Contract Research.

Behind steel doors, the scientists, technicians and veterinarians conduct highly-sensitive studies while suiting up against exposure. They work in full body suits connected by a hose to an air supply…looking like terrestrial astronauts as they collect and run samples, often from the animal models on site at Texas Biomed.

Texas Biomed is home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center, home to 2500 monkeys crucial to the pre-clinical studies which pave the way for FDA approved therapies.

Dr. Carrion calls the combination of a high containment lab and a primate center as a great match. “So basically, we’re a one stop shop where we can start with acquiring animals, vaccinating the animals, transporting them to the BSL 4 and actually challenging them or exposing them to an agent,” he said. “That minimizes the variation in your study because you have less variability.”

Scientists in the BSL-4 work on government sponsored studies and commercial contracts. Work is conducted in a process called Good Laboratory Practices, or GLP…with careful quality control and assurance before and after experiments. That means independent oversite to ensure that what was documented is precisely what happened in the lab.

Precision is also at the heart of work in Texas Biomed’s Biosafety Level 3 lab. The BSL 3 is home to the Institute’s new focus on diagnosing, presenting and curing tuberculosis, a disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Jordi Torrelles, Ph.D., is Director of the BSL3 program which is centered around communicable diseases that are serious and transmittable, but treatable, like TB.

“It is a specialized laboratory for specific microbes that are pathogenic for people. So that can be transmitted by aerosol, through the air, and that’s the reason why we have special biocontainment labs – to keep them safe,” Torrelles emphasized.

Those safety controls include a negative pressure system that sucks air in and acts like a vacuum to keep pathogens from escaping…and the use of biosafety cabinets, or hoods, to protect the people working with the pathogen. Plus all of the highly-trained staff wear PPE – personal protective equipment – shoe covers, glasses, gowns, masks and goggles they don every time they enter the lab and dispose of before they leave. Dr. Torrelles says Texas Biomed has both the expertise and the facilities to conduct reliable, groundbreaking research. That’s important, since science can be expensive, time consuming and labor intensive.

“You know, it’s very costly and our bacteria grows very slowly. An experiment can be two to three months,” Torrelles said. “And there are some experiments like in the case of infection in animals, those experiments go up to two years.”

Even the best procedures are nothing with passion. Like many scientists at Texas Biomed, Dr. Carrion says he’s driven by the desire for discovery. “Viruses, to me, are very efficient, very small, but they’re able to do so much in terms of how they interact, how they replicate, how they’re able to invade the immune system and to me that’s fascinating.”

With the ability to take experiments from the early stages all the way through animal studies in its high containment labs, Texas Biomed is combining the best minds with exceptional resources to impact human health – here and around the world.