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Texas Laboratory Tracks Deadly Diseases Worldwide

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In August last year a new national laboratory began operating in the U.S. city of Galveston, Texas, just weeks before the area was struck by a devastating hurricane. But the lab fared well, with no damage or disruption to operations, because it was built to withstand such storms and more.  Security is important at The Galveston National Laboratory because it contains samples of the world's most dangerous pathogens.  

New illnesses appear all the time around the world and are often found to be variations of illnesses already known. But to be sure, samples of the virus or bacteria thought to be causing the illness are sent back to Galveston.

They end up in a 52,000 square-meter building - The Galveston National Laboratory-on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch. The lab's deputy director, Jim LeDuc says the staff on hand is ready for whatever comes in.

"Our faculty [members] are experts in a number of different diseases-plague and anthrax, virus diseases, common ones like influenza and less common ones that you see around the world like dengue and some of the viral hemorrhagic fevers," he said.

The Galveston laboratory has an in-house collection of most pathogens and works with collaborators around the world to identify and study new diseases.

"If we do not know what that organism is, then we begin with basic characterization and to do that we look at molecular tools to identify the sequence of the virus or the bacteria. We test it in a variety of systems that will allow us to start to classify it," said LeDuc.

If a pathogen has killed someone and cannot be immediately identified, it is taken to the highest level of security, a facility isolated from the rest of the building where workers wear air-filled plastic suits they call space suits, which LeDuc says keep them safe.

"You are protected not only by the plastic suit itself, but by this curtain of air that is circulating past you and out," he said.

When workers leave the secure lab, they take a chemical shower and then a normal water shower to remove any possible biological material that may have attached to the plastic surface of the space suit. The liquid from both showers drains into large tanks isolated on the floor below. The contents of the tanks are cooked at high temperatures before being flushed out.  

One of the most important roles of the lab would be to quickly identify and find treatment for any biological agent that might be used in a terrorist attack.  Jim LeDuc says researchers would use the same procedures they use for any other pathogen.

"The laboratory is designed to work on infectious diseases and biological terrorism threat agents.   We are using exactly the same skills and tests and the same objectives to work on biological terrorism agents as we are using for naturally occurring infectious disease threats," said LeDuc.

In the end, he says, the job is to improve diagnostics, find the best treatment and develop measures to prevent further infections.  The Galveston National Laboratory, which began operating about eight months ago with a limited staff is now close to being fully operational.

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