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Applied Biosafety, 10(4) pp. 253-257 © ABSA 2005

Operating a BSL-4 Laboratory in a University Setting: Georgia State University Lab Studies Deadly Alpha Herpes Virus

Tradeline Publications

Orinda, California

The Viral Immunology Center at Georgia State University (GSU) is recognized as the national re- source facility for research related to the early diag- nosis and effective treatment of dangerous viral dis- eases, most notably B virus (Cercopithecine herpesvi- rus 1), herpesviridae. Funded by the National Insti- tutes of Health, the Center operates the National B Virus Resource Laboratory aimed at learning more about the deadly alpha herpes virus and preventing its transmission to laboratory workers.

The GSU Center, located in downtown Atlanta, was the first BSL-4 facility in the country operating in a university setting. Under the direction of Julia Hil- liard, the goal of the laboratory’s research is not only to diagnose viral diseases, but also to study the agents and use their infrastructure to design vaccines.

The B Virus laboratory had been located at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, and operations were proceeding well in the BSL-4 environment. However, space con- straints limited the size of the staff to 10 people and restricted the amount of work that could be done.

Research officials at Georgia State University called upon Hilliard to move her facility to down- town Atlanta in 1997, noting the University’s prox- imity to Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Medical College of Georgia. The retrofitted lab at the University offers three times the amount of space that Hilliard was using at the Texas facility.

“The thrill of working in a rich milieu and hav- ing a new facility was enough to engage my interest

in moving the laboratory,” recalls Hilliard. “We now know what it’s like to build a BSL-4 laboratory in a highly concentrated downtown area. We were told this would not be a big problem because the residents were already aware that maximum- containment laboratories were operating in the city.”

Maximum-containment BSL-3 and -4 suites are necessary due to the nature of the alpha herpes vi- rus, or B Virus, which is transmitted by the Macaca species of monkeys often used in biomedical re- search. Although there is a low frequency of infec- tion among people, the virus is considered a severe occupational hazard for laboratory workers as a re- sult of its lethal consequences if not diagnosed quickly after infection.

“The virus causes death in 80 percent of the in- fected individuals (after it literally attacks the cervical spinal cord),” says Hilliard. “There have been five fatalities in the last 12 years at four different institu- tions in four states. The survivors are our first intro- duction to what happens when you put a pathogen like B virus into the human population. The reason we work with this agent is because we know that rapid identification means we can successfully treat the individuals.”

The cost of moving to Atlanta was approximately $200,000, which included expenses for shipping the laboratory equipment, moving staff, and flying back and forth between the new lab and the Texas lab to verify that the performance standards of the new facility matched those of the well established lab. The cost to renovate the space to accommodate the


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