The Texas Biomedical Research Institute board of trustees on Monday approved moving forward with the design and construction of its new biocontainment laboratory facility used for the study of deadly pathogens. 

The new facility would expand the capacity of Texas Biomed’s current biosafety laboratory level 4, or BSL-4 lab, which the institute has outgrown. Such facilities represent the highest safety level for lab research and are used by scientists who work on diseases caused by highly contagious and lethal filoviruses such as Ebola or Marburg.

For scientists studying these diseases, the only safe way to conduct laboratory experiments is to wear protective gear within a restricted area specifically designed with biocontainment precautions at the highest level to prevent contagion.

Texas Biomed built the first BSL-4 facility west of the Mississippi in 2000. Despite operating around the clock since 2012, there is a backlog of more than two years worth of research in the pipeline that requires access to the BSL-4 lab, according to Texas Biomed.

A scientist works at a vent hood inside the BSL-4 lab
A scientist works at a vent hood inside the BSL-4 lab. Credit: Courtesy Texas BioMed

“The Institute’s current biosafety level 4 laboratory … must expand if we are to meet the growing demands for discovering more effective diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines for these infections,” said Texas Biomed President and CEO Dr. Larry Schlesinger.

The board’s approval allows the Institute to begin the design phase of the project. The scope and timing of the expansion, as well as overall financial investment will be based on design and construction criteria and feedback from potential public and private partners.

A scientist works on an experiment while wearing a protective suit inside the BSL-4 lab
A scientist works on an experiment while wearing a protective suit inside the BSL-4 lab. Credit: Courtesy Texas BioMed

Schlesinger, who joined Texas Biomed as its president in May, sees the expansion of high containment laboratory space as necessary for the continued growth and success of the Institute.

Labs handling microorganisms fall into one of into four categories or levels, from biosafety level or BSL 1 through 4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases collaborate on setting strict guidelines for working at each biosafety level.

BSL-4 labs require specialized construction such as self-contained, separate air and water supplies and a backup generator to keep the lab safe if it loses power, meaning costs add up quickly.

“The cost of building such a complex laboratory is sizable, and as with all of our capital projects, investment will come from a variety of partners,” Schlesinger said. “We are pursuing funding at public and private levels.”

Because of a lack of federal funding and Texas Biomed’s limited budget when the current BSL-4 lab was built, the lab was constructed with a streamlined design, according to Dr. Jean Patterson, Texas Biomed scientist and chair of the BSL-4 Task Force. That simple design has been the 1,200 sq. ft. lab’s strength, as it has lasted a long time with few maintenance issues.

“Texas Biomed’s current biosafety level 4 laboratory is operating at maximum capacity with an active pipeline for the next two-plus years and is the only private organization providing a simple, efficient model with the flexibility to rapidly respond to priority research needs,” Patterson said. “We would not have grown to the capacity we are now without it.”

At least 25% of the approximate 60 million annual deaths in the world are from infectious diseases. The growing demand for research into diseases like Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa Fever reflect the serious risks posed by current and emerging infectious diseases that could potentially spread, overwhelming public health responses worldwide.

The team of scientists in Texas Biomed’s virology and immunology department focuses on developing vaccines, therapeutics, and tests for diseases including Ebola, Marburg, HIV, tuberculosis, and more recently, the Zika virus. The new facility will allow Texas Biomed to continue to recruit scientists, attract research funding, and maintain San Antonio’s position as a leader in biomedical research, Texas Biomed officials said.

“Proactive and continuous research toward the development of countermeasures is critical to both our national health and security,” Patterson said.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.