Avian Flu, SARS in Tufts' Sights

The idyllic setting of Tufts University's central Massachusetts campus, where for 30 years students have trained to become veterinarians, will soon become a new frontline in the fight against diseases such as Avian flu and SARS.

After more than a decade of planning and negotiations, Tufts plans to break ground this summer on a biocontainment lab, the first of what the school hopes will be a spate of new life sciences buildings on a 106-acre site adjacent to its veterinary campus. The lab will study diseases animals transmit to humans, known as zoonotics, and those spread through food and water.

The research will focus on microorganisms that could be used to infect large numbers of people and animals, such as E. coli, Cryptosporidium and the Norwalk virus. Earlier work by the school in this area has led to antibody treatments of the E. coli bacteria and a new method for detecting parasites (cryptosporidia) in municipal water supplies.

Despite the deadly materials that will be studied there, school officials said the lab poses no danger to residents because of the safeguards prescribed by federal regulations. "The real public health threat is not from having this kind of lab in town. It's from not having these kinds of facilities to engage in necessary research of infectious diseases," said Joseph McManus, associate dean of Tufts' Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

The facility will be a level 3 regional biocontainment laboratory, the second most serious safety rating under guidelines set by the US government; the highest are level 4 facilities, such as the one planned by Boston University in Boston's South End, that handle highly infectious and lethal materials; a level 1 is the equivalent of a high school science lab.

The veterinary school already has a level 3 lab on campus. Research in such facilities is conducted in airtight enclosures and includes clothing decontamination, equipment sterilization, and air filtration systems to prevent the spread of any infectious agents. Gates, key passes, and 24-hour alarms will provide additional security.

The lab remains controversial in Grafton; Town Meeting voted in 2005 to oppose the project, though the vote remains largely symbolic -- Tufts had previously won special zoning from the town in 1992 that allows such uses on the property.

Bob Carroll worries about exposure to nearby residents and students at North Grafton Elementary School, less than a mile away, if any toxic substances or infected animals escaped the lab. "It's a way to bring in more money and more prestige for the university, and I can't blame them for that, but at what cost?" Carroll said. "It's too close to the school and too close to the train station and if something bad happened it would be a disaster."

Grafton's Planning Board is examining plans for the lab's building to ensure it meets town guidelines. Tufts is paying Grafton $55,000 annually for 10 years, starting in 2005, to mitigate the development's impact upon town services.

Even so, Grafton town administrator Natalie Lashmit said the lab is not the greatest threat the town faces. "Frankly, we have hazards that are probably more difficult to manage than a level 3 biolab," Lashmit said, citing potentially hazardous accidents on the Massachusetts Turnpike or the nearby railroad line.

About 75 percent of the nearly $26 million lab project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The 37,000-square-foot lab is expected to open in spring 2009. McManus said Tufts hopes the lab and adjacent development space will attract commercial companies and spark collaborative research activity.