BOSTON (CBS) – They will study some of the most deadly viruses in the world and the lab is in a densely populated Boston neighborhood.
After more than a decade of controversy, Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) has received its final approval, and could begin studying Ebola and other viruses in a few months. WBZ-TV got an inside look at what they hope to accomplish, and how they plan to keep themselves, and the community safe.
The Bio Safety Level 4 lab is located in the South End, on Albany Street. It’s here that Boston University scientists hope to break the code of some of the world’s deadliest pathogens, like Ebola, the virus that killed thousands of people in Africa just a few years ago. In fact, Ebola is the first target of the NEIDL, one of only 10 of these labs in the United States.
“Trying to understand where these pathogens are, and being able to detect them early on would actually go a long way in stopping these types of terrible outbreaks, says Ron Corley, Ph.D. the director of the lab.
After more than a decade of debate, lawsuits and regulatory hurdles, the NEIDL received its final approval last month.
In the meantime they’ve been training in this simulation lab, working with security systems that limit who gets in, getting used to “space” suits that seal a scientist inside where they connect to hoses for air, and using a chemical shower when they leave the lab that kills anything on the suit.
“The safety records of Bio Safety Level 4 laboratories is really second to none,” says Corley. “There never has been an infection in the western world, there has never been an infection of a researcher or a community.”
Negative pressure in the lab itself ensures that nothing can escape, and all the work with the viruses happens in a bio safety cabinet where a curtain of air is drawn up through filters. Elke Muhlberger Ph.D., one of the lead researchers, says they want to find treatments and vaccines.
“In order to reach this goal of course we have to understand why these viruses are so devastating in humans, what do they do to us? What do they do to our immune system? Why do they destroy our organs? We don’t know that yet and we would like to find out,” she told WBZ.
Some people who live in the South End have fought the lab for years arguing it shouldn’t be in such a densely populated area and that the risk just isn’t worth it.
Newly elected Boston City Councilor Kim Janey who represents the neighborhood is opposed to the lab, saying in a statement: “I stand with the community against locating this laboratory in a dense residential neighborhood. While the NEIDL plans to conduct important research, I am concerned that working with such hazardous and deadly diseases in close proximity to major commercial and residential districts poses a significant risk.”
But with the final approval, the lab can move forward to acquire Ebola and other viruses for study. That could happen in the next few months.