UTHSC Awarded $14 Million NIAID Agreement for Biodefense Research

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UTHSC has been awarded a cooperative agreement for approximately $14 million from the NIAID to construct a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory for biodefense and microbiological research related to serious emerging infections.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), in collaboration with several primary partners, has been awarded a cooperative agreement for approximately $14 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to construct a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) that will be used for biodefense and microbiological research related to serious emerging infections. The NIAID is part of the National Institutes of Health.

This announcement follows an influx of NIAID funding for biodefense research to the Region IV Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, of which UTHSC is an affiliate. Funding for these efforts will provide support for the research, whereas the RBL grant will provide money for specialized facilities to carry out parts of this research that has to be done in a highly secure environment. Primary RBL partners include the Memphis BioTech Foundation and The Jackson Laboratory.

According to principal investigator and UTHSC vice chancellor for research, Mike Dockter, PhD, “This opportunity allowed each of us to excel in what we’re good at doing. Our internationally recognized researchers in mouse genetics will use new approaches to discover genes responsible for diseases. The Memphis BioTech Foundation will provide the location adjacent to university research facilities and will help attract new businesses; and The Jackson Laboratory, which will supply resources and training, will also expand the already existing mouse models of human disease at UTHSC. This grant represents more than just a cornerstone for Memphis’ biotech park, but also a crucial part of the foundation of regional medical research.”

Interim UT President Joe Johnson said research at the Health Science Center has an impact beyond the campus and regional medical center in Memphis.

“In addition to making us safer by studying infectious diseases, research creates jobs and brings new dollars to Tennessee,” Johnson said. “I appreciate and thank all those who worked together to win this award and for the good work they do for the University of Tennessee.

Memphis BioTech Foundation executive director, Steve Bares, PhD, stated,

“This grant plays a key role in the bioscience initiative here in Memphis. Since the lab will be located adjacent to the BioTech site, this will be a magnet for bioscience business and industry. Naturally, this means tremendous economic growth.”

Dr. Dockter commented that the lab will serve members of the Southeast Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense, and more broadly, researchers from major institutions across the nation representing three additional RCE’s. These scientists, in addition to leaders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Southeastern Center for Emerging Biologic Threats (SECBT), were all strong advocates of the Memphis-based RBL.

“We were a logical choice for this site because Memphis’ central location makes it easily accessible, and we have wonderful distribution services and scientific resources,” Dr. Dockter stated.

The facility, which has been designed for regional and national use, will consist of a suite of highly secure biosafety laboratories, as well as space for training, security and support. The facility will also be designed to provide support on a national level in the event of a bioterrorism attack on the nation.

UTHSC’s director of biodefense research and professor, Malak Kotb, PhD, stressed that the inter-institutional and multidisciplinary collaboration between groups with genetic and infectious disease expertise will ensure widespread use of hundreds of novel mouse strains in this RBL facility. Key collaborators include: the CDC, Emory University and the SECBT in Georgia, Large Scale Biology Corporation in Kentucky, Harvard Medical Center, Duke University, Washington University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Minnesota, Tulane University, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center, Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center and RamSafe.

Dr. Kotb said, “This biodefense-related research will provide critical, new knowledge on mechanisms and genetic factors that influence how bacteria and viruses cause disease. We expect that this unprecedented, collaborative research that will take place in this RBL facility will generate discoveries that will lead to early diagnosis, vaccine development, new treatment and perhaps even eradication of potentially catastrophic infectious diseases.”

According to the NIAID, this grant is part of a nationwide effort that includes funding two National Biocontainment Laboratories and nine RBLs. Although UT has met the matching requirements set by the NIH, the university continues its effort to gain additional financial support from the private sector.