Raising the Bar for Combating Biological Threats: Yale’s Level 3 Biosafety Laboratory

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,338 cases of West Nile virus infections in the United States in 2008, with 43 ending in death. The 2007 to 2008 influenza season was estimated to have almost 2,000 deaths in the United States alone. In 2007, there were 13,299 cases of tuberculosis in the United States and nearly 9 million new cases around the world. From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to 2007, AIDS infected 1,051,875 people, taking the lives of 583,298.

Many institutions are pursuing research to combat these global and endemic health issues, and Yale is investing its resources to be a forerunner in this research. This year, a new Level 3 biosafety labora­tory (BSL-3) opened at the Yale School of Public Health.

Professor Sara Rockwell, the director of the School of Medicine’s Office of Scientific Affairs, described the facility as an expanded, modernized version of Yale’s previous BSL-3. More advanced technology and increased research space gives Yale researchers the resources they need to study emergent diseases.

As Professor Rockwell said, “This lab allows us to react to diseases that suddenly affect us as a local and a global community.”

A BSL-3 is the second highest level of a biosafety lab. They deal with possibly fatal infectious agents in search of vaccines and treatments. At Yale’s new and improved BSL-3, investigators research treatment methods and vaccines for diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis, HIV, and prion diseases like scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome.

According to Professor Rockwell, the West Nile virus currently has the largest concentration of investigators working on it. Its sudden appearance in New England has piqued the interest of many researchers here at Yale. She predicts that work on tuberculosis will expand in the future as the disease becomes an increasingly serious health issue worldwide.

It was certainly a nontrivial job to design a facility with the proper equipment to protect those working within it. It took several years to choose a suitable location for the new BSL-3 and select a design that complied with local, federal, and state safety regulations.

The infectious nature of the agents handled in this BSL-3 lab requires more than just a sterile environ­ment. Because some of the agents, like influenza and tuberculosis, can be transmitted via the aerosol route, each laboratory of the facility has its own air handling system to prevent the spread of an agent in the event of an accident.

Plumbing for each laboratory is also self-contained. Drains have special devices that contain and sterilize the exiting liquid before releasing it to the sewage system.

All samples leaving the facility are handled in sterilized containers. Agents are handled with similar meticulous safety measures within the laboratory. All experimental work is done within a biosafety cabinet, a containment device with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Each freezer has electronic vial control so that each vial is accounted for.

For those of you who wish to visit the new BSL-3, however, you may want to hold that thought. Not only is the facility still undergo­ing testing, but all people entering must be specially trained for the agent in the specific laboratory. The training process is intensive, and it must be completed by everyone from the principal investigators to the janitorial staff.

Before one can even step into a BSL-3 lab, one needs to have passed training for a BSL-1 and then training for a BSL-2, which deals with blood-borne pathogens, human cells/tissues, and some human disease organisms. Afterwards, additional training programs for BSL-3, along with a six-month internship with a principal investigator, completes the process.

Much new and exciting research will take place in one of Yale’s newest facilities. In the words of Professor Rockwell, “This is a safe place to study endemic diseases, a safe place to handle and research those organisms that affect us in our daily lives.” We can count on our hardworking investigators to take advantage of this BSL-3 to help make our world a safer and healthier place.