Emerging diseases research center to be dedicated today

Within these walls, researchers prepare to do battle with the next wave of infectious diseases that could plague our times

An exterior view of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute located off Gale Lemerand Drive.

Tricia Coyne/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 10:12 p.m.

The University of Florida is home to a new research facility, prepared to function as an early warning system for emerging diseases and linking investigators around the world.

The Emerging Pathogens Institute on the UF campus will be dedicated today. The $60 million facility provides a one-of-a-kind defense system against the dangerous microorganisms that arrive and thrive in Florida's semi-tropical climate.

"We are a tourist center with a constant influx of people from throughout the world, bringing with them all sorts of microorganisms, some of which can create problems," says Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the institute. "If you live in Maine, you don't have to worry about this stuff."

"This stuff" can include malaria, swine flu, Salmonella or E. coli contamination of our food; citrus cancer, blight or greening that could destroy one of Florida's key crops; or animal diseases that can spread to humans, such as West Nile virus.

"Florida is a magnet for pathogens that pose a threat not only to people but also to agricultural mainstays and to our native ecosystem," UF Vice President of Research Win Phillips said. "We've already seen the consequences. The Emerging Pathogens Institute will help us understand and contain future threats."

Morris said the goal of about 150 researchers working in or through the institute is to get ahead of the next big threat to our plants, animals, people and food safety.

"If we wait until it is here on our doorstep, we are already behind," Morris said. "When you talk about pathogens, you can't separate what is going on in Mongolia with what's happening here."

The EPI was formed in 2006 and has drawn researchers from eight colleges, spanning veterinary medicine to human medical sciences and including plant and agricultural sciences. It has research collaborators in 32 countries.

"No other pathogens research facility in the nation has the breadth and scope of expertise that we do," Morris said.

The central hub for that research effort is an 80,000-square-foot building located just off Archer Road at Gale Lemerand Drive. It was built at a cost of $60 million and includes 28 biological safety level 2 and 3 laboratories, three biosafety level 3 rooftop greenhouses, a bioinformatics wing and offices for a team of more than 150 microbiologists, epidemiologists, computer modelers, pathologists, geographers, statisticians, ecologists, entomologists and molecular geneticists.

So how does all that brain power focus on a potential threat?

Morris gives malaria - a vector-borne disease transmitted by mosquitoes - as an example.

The EPI has a $1.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to look at mathematical models of malaria transmission in sub-Saharan Africa.

But if you want to control malaria, Morris explains, you need to get rid of the mosquito that is the vector, so one of the EPI faculty members is working on designer insecticides specifically targeted toward that variety of mosquito. Another is focusing on how to control mosquito larvae.

"We hope to apply what we find to citrus greening, an agricultural disease which is also vector-borne, transmitted by a psyllid," Morris adds. Psyllids are small insects that feed on plants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates four biosafety levels for laboratories dealing with infectious pathogens. Level 4 labs handle things such as the deadly ebola virus.

"They are the space-suit labs," Morris said. "We weren't looking for a laboratory on that level."

Level 3 labs deal with pathogens that are of significant concern, such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and influenza strains. They are pressure-controlled labs designed so that if there is an inadvertent accident, they can be sealed and decontaminated. Lab workers must be gowned and masked, and must shower before they come out.

"They can handle things you want to keep an watchful eye on. You don't want them to get out into the community," Morris said.

Level 2 labs are used to study all other pathogens.

There are specific requirements concerning safety for these labs as well, set by the CDC.

The institute has a total of 28 Level 3 and Level 2 laboratories.

The driving force in designing the new building, Morris said, was to build to the highest standard and thus minimize any risk to area residents.

"The bottom line is that we are one of the largest biosafety Level 3 facilities in this region of the United States," he said. "We have the research capacity to deal with any pathogen that arrives in the state of Florida."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top