NIH awards $1.8 million to center for biodefense, emerging diseases research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded an additional $1.8 million to the Midwest Regional Center of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (MRCE), a multi-institutional research center anchored at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Partners in the MRCE are St. Louis University, Case Western Reserve University, the Midwest Research Institute and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The new funding supplements the center’s $6 million budget for the year, which is provided through the five-year, $35 million grant that created the MRCE last year. Seven other regional centers of excellence were established at the same time.

“When the centers were created, the NIH set aside funds for innovative new directions in research and efforts to deal with important new infectious disease issues,” explains Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., M.D., director of the MRCE and professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. “We successfully applied for some of those funds.”

The supplemental grant supports several MRCE programs and facilities, including an innovative, high-tech approach for rapidly identifying infectious agents; new core facilities for research into pathogens that can only be handled under precisely controlled conditions; and a national lecture series.

“Some of these funds will help David Wang, a new faculty member in molecular microbiology and in pathology, who is developing an approach known as a viral gene chip,” says Stanley. “The chip is a diagnostic tool upon which he’s put down gene sequences from representatives of all the known virus families, allowing us to rapidly learn more about the cause of an emergent outbreak.”

Stanley notes that Wang, Ph.D., then at the University of California-San Francisco, was able to use the chip to successfully identify the SARS virus at about the same time other scientists were first publishing its gene sequence.

“This grant will help David expand this technique for use on different kinds of clinical samples and allow him to validate its usefulness as a diagnostic tool,” Stanley explains.

MRCE scientists will use the supplemental funds to start constructing a new core research facility that allows them to apply state-of-the-art microscopy techniques to pathogens that have to be handled under the tightly controlled conditions known as biosafety level 3 (BSL3). Organisms that have to be handled under these standards include HIV and tuberculosis.

“There has been a lot of work recently on some new microscopy techniques that allow you to look at the interactions between pathogens and live cells in real time,” says Stanley. “What we’re setting up may be unique: a microscopy facility that allows us to apply these tools and techniques to BSL3 agents.”

Dr. Thomas Steinberg, M.D., associate professor of cell biology and physiology and of medicine, will lead the microscopy core facility.

According to Stanley, Washington University scientists and scientists from other regional institutions will also be able to use the facility, with priority going to faculty who are studying infectious agents the MRCE is interested in studying.

The supplemental grant will also allow MRCE scientists to refurbish and maintain a BSL3 lab space formerly used by a Washington University HIV researcher. The new microscopy core will be established in this space.

The new lab will also provide the MRCE with what Stanley calls “surge space”— areas that researchers can expand into if a new and high-priority infectious agent appears that can only be studied in appropriately equipped labs.

“We’re also planning to use the area to hold an annual national biosafety course on working with BSL3 agents,” Stanley says. “We won’t actually have people working with the agents, but they’ll be able to go through all the same procedures—the gowning, the gloving, the barriers, the double-door entries — all that will be real because it will be a real facility, we just won’t have the agents.”

The new funds will also support the creation of a lecture series for the eight regional centers of excellence. Stanley and Jennie Lovett, Ph.D., the MRCE project manager, will organize the series, which will include talks given via satellite, over the Internet and in person.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.