By Ina Fried

A new infectious diseases laboratory at the Keck School of Medicine of USC will allow researchers to study bacteria and viruses that threaten humans with serious airborne diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), SARS and pandemic influenza.

Now under construction on the top floor of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, the lab is being built to the exacting requirements of a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) lab, a federal classification of a facility designed for the study of agents that can cause potentially severe or fatal illness as a result of exposure by inhalation.

The construction is funded primarily by $1.5 million from the Hastings Foundation and $1.5 million from the Wright Foundation.

A BSL3 lab is important for medical research and public health, explained Jae Jung, the Fletcher Jones Foundation Chair and Hastings Foundation Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School. “Social and scientific issues emphasize the importance of studying infectious diseases that cause harm to humans.”

Socially, the growth of global trade and transportation facilitates the rapid spread of infectious diseases worldwide. Because of its location, Los Angeles has become a “gateway for germs,” said Jung, who is also director of the USC Institute of Emerging Pathogens and Immune Diseases. Seventy to 80 percent of people entering the United States from Asian countries enter through Los Angeles, and the city is a major entry point for people from South America, as well.

Scientifically, “due to the overuse of antibiotics to treat infectious illnesses, the incidence of drug-resistant bacteria that cause TB have increased considerably over past decades” he said. Approximately one-in-three people worldwide already carry TB-causing bacteria, and multi-drug resistant TB is present in virtually all countries surveyed by the World Health Organization.

“We will study the causes of the diseases, which will lead to antimicrobial and antiviral drugs for treatment and ultimately to vaccine development for prevention,” Jung said.

Because of the hazardous substances with which researchers will work, the lab is strictly designed to safeguard against both unauthorized access and the possible escape of any biological materials from the lab. All researchers, as well as Facilities and Department of Public Safety personnel, are completing specialized training for the facility.

Jung and Paula Cannon, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, have experience with research that took place in Harvard University’s BSL3 lab. In addition, Cannon helped establish a BSL3 lab at Oxford University in England.

“The BSL3 lab allows us to work with important pathogens that the vast majority of research institutions can’t work with,” Cannon said. “These are pathogens that are hazardous not just to the person who has the infection, but to the researchers studying it, but the BSL3 lab will provide us with a safe and appropriate environment in which to do this important work.”

Both Cannon and Jung said they expect that the new lab will help with recruiting additional faculty researchers with an interest in diseases that must be studied in a BSL3 lab.

“When you build a BSL3 lab, it doesn’t just help the scientists who are already here at USC and want to work on these diseases, but it also makes USC that much more attractive to people to come here,” Cannon said.

“I think increasingly, it will be important that the Keck School of Medicine has a robust research program in the sorts of diseases that are emerging as potential problems in the future,” Cannon said.

“We don’t know what the next big thing is going to be,” she said. “Working with a BSL3 allows us to study not just the known pathogens of today, but to have an eye to the future, thinking about what could be coming down the pipeline, and to be more prepared. So it’s incredibly important work to do and a unique way that USC can contribute to both local and global health.”