Dr. Dick Oberst, left, leads a tour through one of the labs in the Biosecurity Research Institute.
Consider it a changing of the guard.
New York's aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center -- a major biosafety level 3 animal disease research facility -- is preparing to be phased out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, NBAF, currently being built in Manhattan, Kan.
While NBAF is not projected to be fully operational until 2018, the pathogen work at Plum Island will not stop. Instead much of it will transition to Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Robert's Hall before eventually transitioning to NBAF.
Dr. Stephen Higgs, research director at the Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, and the associate vice president for research at the Kansas State University, spent two weeks at Plum Island in September 2011, in part to discuss the Plum Island-BRI transition process.
"Essentially the BRI is going to be a springboard to get NBAF research going as soon as possible after it opens," Dr. Higgs said. "As Plum Island ramps down, we are making sure that there is not a drop-off in research and training on these pathogens. That's important because we cannot afford to have a period where there's not work being done on these diseases should one of them happen to come to America."
Although no definitive date has been set for when projects will begin transferring to the Biosecurity Research Institute, Higgs said that university and Manhattan-based U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are already working on some research projects related to the current disease studies at Plum Island, and are procuring the necessary approvals in order to soon begin on others -- including African swine fever and high-path avian influenza.
Additionally, an insectary was recently completed at the Biosecurity Research Institute that will help its scientists work on insect-spread diseases like Rift Valley fever and blue tongue viruses. The insectary is something Plum Island is not equipped with, but may be a part of the research at NBAF.
While visiting Plum Island, Higgs also met with researchers about transboundary animal diseases, those occurring in multiple counties and capable of being carried to new ones. Higgs taught classes on Rift Valley fever virus and on mosquito-virus interactions, and gave talks on the Biosecurity Research Institute and NBAF.
"Moving these projects from Plum Island to the BRI really opens up new possibilities for infectious disease research at K-State that hasn't been possible in the past," Dr. Higgs said. "These are high priority pathogens of major concern because they are a threat to our agricultural system. I really see this as being a whole new era at Kansas State University."
Expertise at Biosecurity Research Institute a front line for future security
Although tiny in size, many pathogens are an enormous threat to the food supply, economy and health of more than 300 million Americans.
Acting as a frontline offensive in this microscopic battlefield is Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Roberts Hall. The 113,000 square foot facility is equipped with 31,000 square feet of laboratories and training facilities -- all focused on securing the nation from infectious diseases.
Researchers at K-State, as well as those in industry and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are using the Biosecurity Research Institute, also known as the BRI, for projects focused controlling pathogens in livestock, insects and plants -- all of which threaten food supplies and can cause serious illness or even death in humans.
Currently, the Biosecurity Research Institute houses the following projects:
* Dr. Jürgen Richt, a Regents distinguished professor and Kansas Bioscience Authority eminent scholar, and Dr. Wenjun Ma, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, are studying emerging and zoonotic infectious disease, including influenza viruses and Rift Valley fever. They recently published their research on the H1N1 virus. An upcoming project will study H5 and H7, two pathogenic avian influenza viruses, and will focus on vaccine development.
* Dr. Randy Phebus, professor of food science, is conducting a study on a group of microorganisms, dubbed non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, or STEC. STEC produce the same toxins and pose similar health threats as E. coli O157:H7, and its presence in ground beef is now regulated in the industry. The project, which involves thousands of pounds of ground beef, is expected to benefit livestock production at all levels.
* Dr. Barbara Valent, university distinguished professor of plant pathology, and Drs. Jim Stack and Bill Bockus, both professors of plant pathology, are studying wheat blast, a serious wheat fungus found in South America. It accounted for 30 percent of the Brazilian wheat crop losses in 2009, although production areas with favorable climate conditions can experience 100 percent losses. Researchers are working to identify resistant varieties of wheat and develop rapid detection tools for the fungus, should it spread to other countries.
* Drs. Dick Hesse and Bob Rowland, virologists in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are focusing on infectious and emerging swine diseases, some of which can spread from animals to humans. Projects involve creating new diagnostic tools and vaccines.
* Dr. Jishu Shi, associate professor of anatomy and physiology, is developing a vaccine for strains of the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, or PRRS. The disease causes reproductive failure and respiratory illness in swine, costing the U.S. swine industry around $700 million annually. Dr. Shi is collaborating with Dr. Frank Blecha, university distinguished professor of immunophysiology, and Drs. Hesse and Rowland.
* Dr. Dick Oberst, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, is working to keep deployed American troops safe from food-based threats like bacteria, pathogens and toxins. Because these agents can be added intentionally or unintentionally to food, he's validating some rapid diagnostic protocols and equipment that would allow soldiers to detect these treats in food rations.
* Drs. Bill Wilson and Barbara Drolet, lead scientists and research microbiologists for the USDA's Arthropod-Borne Animal Disease Research Unit, or ABADRU, and Dr. Scott McVey, supervisory veterinary medical officer for the unit, have projects centered on controlling Rift Valley fever and bluetongue disease, as well as other arboviruses transmitted by bloodsucking arthropods like mosquitoes, ticks and midges.
* A team of chemists and microbiologists from NanoScale Corp. is developing an Enhanced Contaminated Human Remains Pouch, or ECHRP, through funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. This novel pouch is intended to be a self-decontaminating, odor-proof, gastight, liquid-impervious system that would transport human remains contaminated by chemical or biological agents. NanoScale is a Manhattan-based company that manufactures, markets and commercializes advanced products and technologies.
Since opening in 2008, research in Kansas State University's Biosecurity Research Institute has been supported by more than $68 million in funding.