Fighting infection

Dedication ceremony held for institute that fights deadly pathogens


Students and professors work in the Bio-Safety Laboratory Level II at the new Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Tuesday, January 26, 2010 in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.

The Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida was officially dedicated Tuesday, with deans from eight colleges manning the scissors for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Within the 80,000-square-foot building, researchers already are at work, preparing for battle against the next wave of infectious diseases that could plague our times.

The new facility draws faculty from eight different colleges at UF to look at plant, animal and human pathogens. About 150 researchers will work through the institute.

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

Win Phillips, UF's vice president for research, reached back to Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken as he spoke to about 200 people gathered for the dedication.

According to Mencken, "The ideal way to get rid of any infectious disease is to shoot on the spot any person who has it."

"We hope we can offer a reasonable alternative to that approach," Phillips said.

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

The seeds of the new institute were sown after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bioterrorism threat presented by anthrax in the "white powder scares" in the months after.

Suddenly, the potential dangers of the world around us were the focus of headlines and committee reports.

Dr. Richard Moyer, then UF's associate dean for research development and a national expert on pox viruses, says it was "remarkably easy to see why a facility like this was needed."

Moyer had a hand in designing the institute in 2004 and was there for the dedication, although he has retired from UF.

UF President Bernie Machen said the idea of the institute "caught the imagination of the state Legislature" at a time when there still was money available for a project like the EPI.

Despite what he described as "the snail's pace of academia," the facility was "hatched, formulated, articulated and brought to fruition in just four years."

Machen added, "This venture is for all of Florida, because we are a prime target for emerging viruses and pathogens."

Visitors toured the institute's 28 laboratories, rooftop greenhouses and offices where colleagues and students can mix, mingle and swap ideas.

At the heart of the building are its Level 3 biosafety labs, designed and certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guarantee that whatever is being studied on the inside won't get out.

These labs have a double-door entry. Because the biological agents being studied are transmissible by the aerosol route and can be dangerous to humans, particular attention is given to air movement. Air moves from the corridor outside the lab to inside. Exhaust air is highly filtered and isn't recirculated through the building.

Lab workers are gowned and gloved and work with the particular virus or infectious agent inside a biological safety cabinet to prevent splatter or spills. Before they can leave the lab, they must shower. Instruments, glassware and anything else they've used is sterilized at a high temperature. No one goes into these labs without training and permission.

The Level 2 labs, also specifically designed, have less stringent rules for handling potentially hazardous material but still must meet CDC guidelines.

"The entire intent is to create an environment where we can work in safety," Morris said. "The organisms we work with - such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and influenza strains - are already out in the community, but the labs let us do things safely that we couldn't do otherwise."

Morris said the major focal points for current projects include vector-borne diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, and specific mosquito-borne disease such as West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis that are already a problem in the state.

Another strong focus is influenza, including the H1N1 virus, along with many animal influenzas, looking at how they evolve in animals to the point that they are transmittable to humans.

Tuberculosis is also in the spotlight, and the Southeastern National Tuberculosis Center is co-located in the EPI.

Food safety and food-borne disease are also important because Florida is an agricultural state. The Salmonella infections of 2008 first were blamed on contaminated tomatoes and did major damage to Florida's tomato industry even though the outbreak eventually was traced back to Mexican peppers.

Whatever comes, Morris said, the EPI is ready. Major funding for projects already under way has come from the Gates Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense.

The thing about pathogens, these researchers say, is that they don't respect state or national borders, so the phrase "One world, one health" has real meaning.

"We must continue to confront the unexpected," said Jim Hughes, president-elect of the Infectious Disease Society of America. At the EPI, they are prepared to do just that.

staff photographs by erica brough

Institute: Visitors toured laboratories

nz1Bpatho0127.jpg

Students and professors work in the Bio-Safety Laboratory Level II at the new Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida on Tuesday in Gainesville. For a video of the dedication ceremony, visit Gainesville.com.

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