UW Biosafety Lab Launches After More Than a Decade of Effort

The launch of a long-awaited biosafety laboratory at the University of Wyoming this month will enable scientists to investigate deadly biological agents, including the bacteria that cause brucellosis.

Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and former UW President Tom Buchanan were among those turning the first shovelfuls of dirt in June 2009 next to the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory near the Snowy Range Road and Interstate 80 interchange. The facility was dedicated in November 2010.

“It was soon after that structural problems became apparent,” says Jonathan Fox, who became head of UW’s Department of Veterinary Sciences in 2019. “There have been a number of setbacks, but we have had a lot of support from university administration all the way to the governor’s office.”

Officially, the University of Wyoming Biocontainment Facility, a biosafety level 3 laboratory (BSL-3), received Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) registration in October. BSL-3 laboratories are designed and verified with facility and ventilation features that allow safe handling and containment of select agents.

A public open house is 1-5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21. The 20-minute tours are limited to eight people each. Booking for tours by clicking here or book at (307) 766-9925. Face coverings will be required to enter the facility.

The concept for the facility began more than 15 years ago, Fox says. Wyoming has a number of diseases regulated at the federal level through the select agent program, he adds.

“This is a program that regulates bacteria and viruses and toxins that have potential for bioterrorism agents,” Fox says. “So, for us to study some important diseases of animals, we needed a specialized facility.”

Elizabeth Case, director of the facility, says there are BSL-3 laboratories in the U.S. that can work with BSL-3 pathogens but not select agents, and there are labs that can work with select agents but not tier-1 select agents, those that present the greatest risk to the public.

UW will be able to do both.

“That’s going to give us a lot of flexibility and a lot of experimental momentum going forward,” Case says. “I think what’s important about this particular facility is that it really opens up avenues of scientific investigation we have not been able to achieve thus far. In the state of Wyoming, we will be able to directly address concerns of infectious disease that affect animals, both domestic and wild, and human health as well.”

Fox says the facility has a diagnostic component in which naturally occurring diseases can be investigated, but also a research arm to study the select agents. The facility’s name reflects its ability to be used by scientists across campus, not only in veterinary sciences.

He hopes the name encourages researchers across the UW campus who might be interested in what this facility can do to help their research programs.

“When we think of bioterrorism agents, they’re not only agents that can cause disease in humans, such as anthrax, but there are agents that also can cause animal and plant disease,” he says. “The facility will open up new avenues of research for various faculty across campus.”

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers can gain valuable experience and training early in their careers, Fox says, adding, “We hope the facility will help the university raise its research profile.”

In addition to brucellosis, Fox says Q fever, which can cause abortions in sheep and goats, and also is a threat to humans, is among diseases that can be investigated.

“We’ll be able to study these diseases that impact Wyoming so, in the long term, the benefits will come back to Wyoming,” he says. “This also will give us opportunities to study in other arenas as well and have more national significance, so we aim to study biological problems with regional and national significance.”

In addition to Case, the facility employs a full-time laboratory technician, a biocontainment manager and facilities support staff.

Case stresses the safety of the laboratory and containment. There are backup generators and redundant systems in place.

“The facility is highly engineered to ensure the pathogens that we bring in stay and cannot get out,” she says. “The air pressure in the facility, with every progressive door you walk through, is negatively pressurized, just slightly, so that when you open a door, the air flows in instead of out.”

Those in the lab are working under containment conditions in the biological safety cabinet. Filters will trap any airborne organisms, and wastewater is put through an effluent disinfection system. Solid waste from the lab is sterilized by autoclave.

“We have a number of checkpoints to make sure everything that comes out of the facility is absolutely inactivated,” she says.

The entire facility also can be disinfected. Vaporized hydrogen peroxide can be circulated to disinfect all surfaces, equipment and air.

“That’s pretty special,” says Case, who has worked at other BSL-3 laboratories. “I have not worked in another BSL-3 lab that had that decontamination system in place.”

Government oversight of the facility means certain standards have to be met to legally operate. The CDC has defined best practices that have to be followed.

“We’re also beholden to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so we are subject to inspections,” she says.

Equipment is still being installed, Case adds.

“The infrastructure is absolutely up to date,” she says. “It’s state of the art. We exceed the minimum requirements for containment in the space and facility.”

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