New equipment and protocols will turbocharge the Rutgers Regional Biocontainment Lab’s effort to comprehend and combat hazardous pathogens such as tuberculosis and SARS-CoV-2.

Extensive renovation will make the aging facility at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School — one of 12 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories (RBLs) nationwide — a state-of-the-art magnet for academic and commercial research projects.

Faster employee training and project review protocols will be developed to help the lab and its partners increase valuable discoveries.

"The nation’s RBLs were created to combat potential bioweapons after Sept. 11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, and they’re starting to show their age. We have equipment that can’t be fixed because no one still makes the parts,” said RBL Director David Alland.

“The COVID-19 pandemic vividly illustrated the need for more contagious disease research and brought new funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to RBLs like ours. Renovation and expansion are underway as we work to become more efficient at routine processes.”

Alland cited employee training as an example.

Initial safety training typically has taken three to six months at the RBL because training only took place when veteran staff could be spared from other jobs. Going forward, full-time training specialists will speed new hires through the process.

The new funding also will enable the RBL to streamline experiment design and approval.

“Designing an experiment and getting the necessary approvals is currently a very cumbersome process,” Alland said. “The process goes through many committees and takes months, but we’re going to build a system that works much more efficiently and involves more online forms and approvals. We’ll also develop models for different diseases and different types of interventions that investigators can use as standardized tools to understand how a disease works or evaluate treatments or vaccines.”

Many of those investigators will come from Rutgers, but some will come from other institutions and private companies. Faculty from other universities use it to conduct parts of their research they cannot safely do in their own labs. Drug companies use it to test vaccines and treatments in human tissues and animals.

The RBL offers its services to outsiders because there are so few facilities where experiments on dangerous pathogens can take place.

“There are national biocontainment labs in Boston and Galveston, Texas, that study biosafety level four agents like Ebola, but the biosafety level three agents that we and the other regional labs study — which include SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, influenza, avian influenza, anthrax, plague, tuberculosis and others — are much larger threats to world health. The work that we and our 11 counterparts do is vital to developing ways to detect, prevent and treat these diseases. It will reduce suffering and deaths and keep our economy functioning if/when another pandemic or biological attack occurs,” Alland said.

“Increasing our research capacity and the speed we produce results is an important step,” he added.

It also generates value for Rutgers. More capacity will allow the university to recruit more top-tier virology, bacteriology, immunology and drug development researchers. These new hires will strengthen what is increasingly recognized as an international center of research excellence, the Rutgers Institute for Infectious and Inflammatory Disease.

“We have already recruited several outstanding NIH-funded virologists that are housed in a new center within the institute focused on this kind of research, named the Center for Viral Host Innate Immunity. This would not have been possible without the presence of this RBL.”