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Biodefense Research Program Fast-Tracked
New Bldg. 33 Complex To Focus on Infectious Diseases

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

If all goes as planned over the course of the next 2 years, by November 2005 the northeastern corner of NIH's Bethesda campus will be the site of a new 150,000 gross-square-foot lab facility, 1,230-space multilevel parking garage, underground storm water management system and a plaza/courtyard. Currently dubbed the Bldg. 33 Complex, the project will be completed in several stages with the first stage set in motion in late September.


The lab facility, Bldg. 33, will be occupied by scientists working at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has taken the lead in NIH's implementation of President Bush's initiative to develop countermeasures to protect the public from the threat of bioterrorism.

"During the past year, the NIAID research mission has been expanded and accelerated by the possibility that disease-causing agents may be intentionally introduced into our communities by those seeking to terrorize our civilian populations," explained NIAID scientific director Dr. Tom Kindt. "While the basic mission of NIAID to combat emerging infectious disease has not changed, it must now include and give some priority to possible agents of bioterrorism. In addition, the nature of the threat has truncated the time scale for development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapies to combat infectious agents. NIAID's expanded mission and the need for a rapid response component as part of that mission have made critical the need for additional laboratory facilities, including access to biocontainment labs to handle infectious agents, and require the construction of additional facilities in a time frame that will allow reasonable fulfillment of the mission."

An artist's rendering of how the new Bldg. 33 complex will look once complete in 2005.

Design of the complex is proceeding and site work and construction of the parking garage are already under way, since erection of the building will require relocation of several hundred parking spaces.

"The 1995 [NIH] Master Plan shows a laboratory building at this site," acknowledged Kyung Kim, an engineer in NIH's Office of Research Facilities who is the complex's project officer. "After 9/11, the research and construction of this complex were put in an accelerated mode."

Kyung Kim, an engineer in NIH's Office of Research Facilities and the complex's project officer

Gaining local approvals and community support for building this new laboratory complex on the Bethesda campus has not been easy, Kim said. Thoughtful criticism of the planned location has come from both internal and external sources. [See "Why Build It in Bethesda?" sidebar] The complex will add another modern lab facility on NIH's main property, he explained, and the high-level science planned for it is central to the agency's mission and goals.

"This is a building where biocontainment research can be conducted on every floor," said Kim. Bldg. 33 will be equipped for BSL-2 and -3 research (See BSL sidebar), with a vivarium, administrative offices and conference and break rooms. The office of the NIAID scientific director will relocate to Bldg. 33.

"This will be a state-of-the-art research facility whose main purpose is to handle infectious agents, disease vectors and animal models for studying transmission, pathogenesis and prevention of infectious diseases," Kim pointed out. "New and re- emerging diseases at the national and international levels will be studied, as will agents that could be used for bioterrorism purposes."

Another view of the biodefense facility now under construction.

Microorganisms to be examined in the building include such recent worldwide newsmakers as anthrax, drug-resistant tuberculosis, hantavirus and dengue and West Nile fever virus. Bacterial vaccine development, and food- and water-borne pathogens are also among research areas that have been assigned space in the new facility.

The new building will contain three stories above grade and a basement, with an interstitial floor at each level. The height of the building will be along the lines of the Clinical Research Center and other contemporary laboratory facilities. Bldg. 33 is designed with interstitial floors that will allow the facility's utilities and other mechanical and engineering functions to be maintained without interruption to lab and animal work. An unoccupied penthouse for mechanical equipment and maintenance support will top off the facility.

"The building is designed so that research can be conducted upstairs and then scientists can conduct animal studies in the vivarium in the basement," Kim explained. "Every stage of the research can be handled within the building."

The vivarium is scheduled to house rodents including rats, mice, guinea pigs and hamsters; holding space for rabbits and non-human primates is also being provided. Construction management is being handled by Spaulding & Slye, the firm that also developed another NIH infectious disease research facility, the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center, Bldg. 40.

Twelve principal investigators are slated to bring research projects into the new complex, which will allow a number of scientists with similar research interests who are currently conducting studies in disparate labs around campus to be united in one location with a common infrastructure. About 242 employees, including scientific, administrative, support and animal care staff, will work in the facility.

"Locating Bldg. 33 on the Bethesda campus is not being done simply for convenience reasons," Kindt noted. "It enhances NIAID's intramural research program, which is directed at the study of a variety of emerging infectious diseases, including organisms that can be used for bioterrorist purposes. The new building will provide additional lab space that will enable NIH to pursue research that has been delayed or deferred because of the lack of adequate containment laboratory facilities on campus."

Why Build It in Bethesda?

Nearly a decade before the first design concept for Bldg. 33 was suggested, and many years even before 9/11 accelerated the need for an expanded biodefense research program, there was the 1995 NIH Campus Master Plan. In that plan, several new research facilities were slated for construction, including a lab building located at the site for Bldg. 33. So the prospect of a new building project is not what has some NIH'ers — and others in the local region — questioning the location of the new infectious disease research facility. Concern expressed by neighbors, a local congressman and even a group of NIH scientists over the last several months all generally boils down to one query: Given the increased security measures of the past 2 years, why locate a building whose main research program is both critical and sensitive in Bethesda, a heavily populated area that is also widely traveled every day?

NIAID scientific director Dr. Tom Kindt offered the answer.

"Simply put, scientific research can be a remarkably painstaking and time-consuming endeavor, but such research invariably flourishes and yields the best results most rapidly in a diverse, collegial environment," he noted. "Research scientists can accomplish the most when they have support services, specialized laboratories and both proximity and access to a cadre of other world-class scientists working in a multitude of diverse disciplines. The shorthand word for this process is 'synergy.' Over and over again, it is this cross-pollination and weaving together of ideas — the synergy of NIH — that has led to historic biomedical breakthroughs."

Citing historic examples of the importance of NIH synergy — such as the development of AZT as the first drug to fight AIDS — Kindt said many of the agency's past intramural successes were due to the campus atmosphere already in place here.

This view shows how the new complex will look from Rockville Pike.

"The craft of research science has time and time again been dramatically accelerated by the collaboration of many scientists working closely together, looking simultaneously at similar problems from multiple perspectives," Kindt pointed out. "The case has been overwhelmingly made that what can be accomplished by working in isolation can most generally be accomplished more rapidly by working collaboratively. A major part of the genius of the NIH is the growing collaboration and the emerging interdisciplinary focus on disease."

Some NIH employees have asked whether building and maintaining a research complex along Rockville Pike might prove to be a distraction to area motorists and other passersby.

"Bldg. 33 will be more than 400 feet from the closest lanes of Rockville Pike, well within the campus, behind the perimeter fence, and screened by existing and planned landscaping," noted Stella Serras-Fiotes, director of the Division of Facilities Planning in the NIH Office of Research Facilities. "While the upper levels of the building may be visible from some portions of Rockville Pike, the building will not serve as any more of a distraction than any other development currently located along this busy roadway."

Other people have questioned the placement on campus of Bldg. 33, and whether a more interior site — nearer to the center of the campus and farther away from main thoroughfares — might make a more secure site.

"In regard to whether other alternative locations on campus for Bldg. 33 were considered," Serras-Fiotes responded, "the critical consideration in determining an appropriate location for Bldg. 33 was conformity with the NIH Campus Master Plan. This plan, as approved by the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal review agency, in 1996, identifies appropriate land uses for every area of the campus. The location of Bldg. 33 is consistent with the approved master plan for a lab facility along with a multi-level parking garage at this site. There are no other immediately available sites for lab construction. Relocating it to the center of the campus, as some have suggested, would require the removal of existing serviceable buildings, and funds are not currently available to replace these structures and accommodate the activities that would be displaced. Moving the new lab to Lot 41 would require eliminating valuable parking spaces. We do not believe it's feasible from a planning perspective to move the building to another campus location or, more importantly, necessary from a safety or security standpoint."

Summing up the decision, Kindt cited other practical reasons, and reiterated NIH's critical part in helping to keep the nation safe.

"Having Bldg. 33 at Bethesda allows NIAID to take full advantage of the physical and intellectual research infrastructure that is already available on campus and minimize replication of costly support services as NIH carries out the President's mandate to expand NIAID biodefense research capabilities."

The new lab sits compatibly amid other NIH buildings.

What Do the BSLs Mean?

The four categories describing laboratory environments — called the biosafety level (BSL) system — are defined by federally established requirements for conducting research and are used worldwide. Below are brief descriptions of each level. For a chart of federal biosafety requirements, visit the online document at

According to "1, 2, 3's of Biosafety Levels" by Dr. Jonathan Richmond of the CDC, BSL-1 is "appropriate for working with microorganisms that are not known to cause disease in healthy humans. This type of lab can be found in municipal water-testing laboratories, in high schools, and in some community colleges teaching introductory microbiology classes, where the agents are not considered hazardous." Standard microbiological practices are required, using routine safety measures.

"The facility, containment devices, administrative controls, and practices and procedures that constitute BSL-2 are designed to maximize safe working conditions for people working with agents of moderate risk to personnel and the environment," Richmond noted. "The agents manipulated at BSL-2 are often ones to which workers have had exposure in the community — often as children — and to which they have already experienced an immune response."

A BSL-3 lab "is suitable for work with infectious agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal diseases as a result of exposure by the inhalation route," according to Richmond. In addition to all BSL-2 requirements and conditions, a BSL-3 laboratory would need — among other considerations — specific secondary barriers to set labs apart from one another, and special attention to air-flow, since BSL-3 agents can be transmissible through aerosol methods.

In the NIH-CDC publication Biosafety in Biomedical and Microbiological Laboratories, BSL-4 is used for work with "dangerous/exotic agents that pose high risk of life-threatening disease, aerosol-transmitted lab infections; or related agents with unknown risk of transmission." Recommended conditions for BSL-4 labs include all level-3 measures in addition to a "separate building or isolated zone, and dedicated supply and exhaust, vacuum, and decontamination systems." Bldg. 33 will not include BSL-4 capacity.

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