"There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise." Albert Camus wrote that in his classic The Plague back in 1947, and the words are as true now as they were then. That's one reason why a UW lab is collaborating with a local biotech company to study some of the world's most lethal pathogens: to help prevent mass casualties in the unlikely event of germ warfare.
The school announced earlier this week that Dr. Michael Gale Jr., a professor of immunology, was awarded an $8.1 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to "advance the next generation antiviral therapeutics," and develop drugs to counteract various biological toxins. Gale's lab will work in conjunction with Seattle-based Kineta Inc., and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
"These diseases are major concerns of the United States government for their risk of sparking a pandemic," Gale said in an official statement, "and their potential use as bioterrorist weapons."
Work on the most deadly viruses will take place in Galveston, where a University of Texas lab is designated "Bio-Safety Level 4," the highest level of safety and security clearance for work on infectious diseases. According to Alisha Prather, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Galveston National Laboratory, only in the last 10 to 15 years has research on the plague and other potential bioterror contagions shifted from government agencies to college campuses. Although films like Contagion and Outbreak might make you think otherwise, Prather says accidents are exceedingly rare. (Check graphic below for more on the precautions at Bio-Safety Level 4 labs.)
"This is not a willy-nilly exercise," Prather says. "Honestly, when you're talking about people in this country who practice safety on the job, I don't think you'd find a safer profession by the numbers than this one."
The lab in Galveston is designed "like a submarine contained in a giant bank vault," with several layers of security and air filtration to keep unauthorized people out and the viruses in. The UW has a "Bio-Safety Level 3" lab on campus cleared to handle things like tuberculosis, SARS, and bird flu, while Kineta's facility in South Lake Union is designated "Bio-Safety Level 2 Plus," meaning it can work with hepatitis and HIV, among other things.
Chuck Magness, CEO of Kineta, says his company previously collaborated with Gale's lab at UW to study more common viruses like the flu and hepatitis. Magness says the goal now is to develop drugs that can be used to effectively treat several types of viruses, not just one. Currently, most anti-viral medicine seeks to attack the virus itself, Mangess explains, while the new research will focus on getting the body to defend itself with an immune response.
"That's the big difference," Mangess says. "It's trying to overcome virus countermeasures. The virus turns things off that prevent [cells] from replicating. We're trying to turn them back on."
Although the Department of Defense and the various national security agencies have no official ties to the research, Mangess says the military has a vested interest in developing anti-viral drugs. Otherwise, the drugs could be used for public health in Africa, southeast Asia, and other parts of the world most impacted by these types of viruses. Barring a terrorist attack, Mangess says, the killer germs "are mostly outside the scope of what the public is dealing with in this country."