After a decade of squabbles, BU’s biolab is in business
The package that Elke Mühlberger had been waiting a decade to receive — a gray hard-plastic case a little bigger than a microwave oven — arrived in Boston earlier this month, after traveling nearly 2,000 miles from Montana. The cargo was so prized it required two carefully vetted drivers and GPS tracking on both the truck and the box.
Dressed in spacesuit-like protective garb in her laboratory, Mühlberger, a microbiologist, dug through several layers of packing materials and dry ice until she found a small, shatterproof plastic box, in which several tiny tubes nestled among paper towels.
Those tubes contained frozen samples of the deadly Ebola virus and its cousin, Marburg virus. And their arrival launched, at long last, the research program within the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory at Boston University. Level 4 labs are authorized to do research on disease-causing microbes for which there is no treatment or vaccine.
“It was a great day for us,” Mühlberger said. “It sounds weird — it’s a package full of deadly viruses — but it was like Christmas.”
The seven-story laboratory in the South End, built in 2008, has been — until now — unable to fulfill its original purpose amid neighbors’ fears of contamination, failed lawsuits to prevent it, and study after study of its safety. The prolonged approval process ended in December with the final thumbs-up from the Boston Public Health Commission.
Called the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, the facility is one of 11 Biosafety Level 4 laboratories in the country.
For Mühlberger, the package’s arrival means she can finally advance the research she had come from Germany to conduct: study how the Ebola virus damages cells, in the hope of finding a way to stop it. When she arrived from the University of Marburg in 2008, she had been told the lab would be approved in six months.
“It’s a big moment, but it’s about time,” said Dr. Ronald B. Corley, the laboratories’ director, who also has been involved with the effort for about a decade. “You learn patience, opening up a facility like this.”
The building hasn’t been standing idle all these years, however. Since 2011 it has housed a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory and since 2013 a Level 3 lab, both certified to study disease-causing microbes that are less dangerous than Ebola.
Even the Level 4 lab has not lain vacant. For the past two years, researchers have been studying Level 2 pathogens there as if they were as dangerous as Level 4, for practice and to validate all the equipment and procedures.
The Level 4 lab takes extraordinary steps to ensure that no pathogens can escape. It occupies a separate earthquake-proof structure within the building, encased in 12-inch-thick walls. Workers must don protective overalls, boots, and mask. The air-handling system creates negative pressure to prevent any airborne germs from leaving, among many other redundant safety measures.
Boston University’s laboratory is one of only two Biosafety Level 4 labs in the country based at academic institutions, and the only one at a research-focused university, Corley said. That means it offers opportunities to work across disciplines.
“We now have access to collaborators that would not normally think about working on pathogens: engineers, biostatisticians, people in fields such as regenerative medicine,” he said.
For example, many of the deadliest disease-causing microbes hurt only humans and don’t make other animals sick. That makes it very difficult to study these pathogens, because researchers can’t ethically induce severe illness in people and then try to treat it. But they can infect lab-grown tissue.
That’s why Mühlberger, despite the long wait, is happy to be in Boston, a center for tissue engineers who propagate human cells in the laboratory.
One reason why Ebola is so devastating to humans is because it destroys liver cells. Working with Gustavo Mostoslavsky, a stem cell biologist and tissue engineer at BU’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, Mühlberger and her team will infect these lab-grown liver cells with Ebola and study what happens.
“If we know what Ebola virus does to these cells, we can find countermeasures,” she said.
Ebola, which causes bleeding throughout the body, killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in a 2014–16 outbreak, and 29 in an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo this past May.
With Marburg virus, which produces similar symptoms, Mühlberger plans to study the cells of a species of bat that harbors the virus but is unaffected by it, to figure out what protects the bats.
Her research is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which also provides more than $10 million a year toward the cost of operating the Level 4 lab.
The first task is to propagate the Ebola and Marburg viruses that came in the many-layered box, infect cells with them, and then deactivate the virus to study it further in a Level 2 lab. Before, members of Mühlberger’s lab had to travel to the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana to work on live Ebola. “It slowed us down dramatically,” she said.
“The lab is just so beautiful. I’m so excited to be here,” she said.