University of Chicago receives funding for $30 million infectious disease initiative

September 30, 2003

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded a $17 million grant to the University of Chicago to build a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at Argonne National Laboratory that will support research for the detection, prevention and elimination of diseases such as anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, influenza and plague. The University will acquire an additional $13 million from other sources to complete the laboratory.

The new University of Chicago facility is one of nine regional and two national biosafety laboratories announced by NIAID today. The facility, to be called the Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory, will support research conducted by the new Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research that NIAID awarded to the University of Chicago earlier this month. The regional center is a collaboration of 14 Midwestern institutions led by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

"Microbiology and infectious disease research are essential for the prevention and treatment of human diseases," said Thomas Rosenbaum, the University of Chicago's Vice President for Research and for Argonne. "Building this new biosafety laboratory will help transform the Midwest into a center for microbiology research and permit us and our partner institutions to take full advantage of the unique structural biology and computational resources already in place at Argonne."

The scope of the biosafety laboratory's research will be broad, encompassing emerging diseases such as West Nile Fever and drug-resistant tuberculosis along with influenza, plague and other perennial threats to human health.

"Few laboratories in the United States are capable of safely working on multiple microbes that cause diseases such as anthrax, plague and hemorrhagic fever," said Olaf Schneewind, M.D., Ph.D., professor in molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago, who heads the project. "The express purpose and specific design of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory is to generate the very best science and technology in a central, state-of-the-art facility to produce drugs, vaccines and diagnostic devices to counter bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases."

Small laboratories already exist at the University and Argonne for safely studying infectious microbes, but the new laboratory will encompass 54,100 gross square feet (27,500 net square feet) and will enable researchers to simultaneously study four or more different pathogens. Flad & Associates of Madison, Wisc., produced the initial design. The company has designed infectious diseases laboratories from coast to coast for government, corporate, academic and non-profit organizations.

Stringent guidelines for design, construction and operations will protect those who work in and near the Ricketts Laboratory and those who live nearby. Before construction starts, environmental analyses that began with the initial building design will be completed and approved. These in-depth site studies, in conjunction with refinements to the laboratory's design, will meet or exceed all requirements established by the National Environmental Policy Act. The environmental analysis process, including review and approval by the NIH (parent agency of NIAID) and the U.S. Department of Energy (which owns the land and will lease it to the University), is expected to take at least nine months.

The Ricketts Laboratory is named for the University of Chicago's Howard Ricketts (1871-1910), who discovered the organisms that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus.

The University of Chicago's partners in the Regional Center of Excellence are Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, Battelle Memorial Institute, Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, Mayo Clinic, Medical College of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, University of Notre Dame, Purdue University, University of Illionis, Urbana-Champaign; University of Illinos, Chicago; University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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