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BU is seen as US choice to build, run bioterror lab

Job may bring $1.6b in grants

Federal health officials are expected to announce today that Boston University Medical Center has won a hard-fought national competition to build and run a high-security bioterror defense laboratory in the heart of the South End, a project with the promise of generating $1.6 billion in research grants, according to sources knowledgeable about the selection.

The facility, known as a Biosafety Level 4 lab, would be a cornerstone in the Bush administration's expanding campaign to prepare for potential acts of bioterrorism, housing hundreds of scientists as they hunt for vaccines and treatments against the deadliest germs and viruses known to mankind, including anthrax, plague, and smallpox.

The lab would be unlike anything Boston's medical community has ever seen, with extraordinary measures taken to assure that lethal agents cannot escape. At the nation's three operational Level 4 research centers, armed guards monitor checkpoints, labyrinths of hallways make quick escape impossible, and scientists in laboratory space suits manipulate mechanical hands to work with deadly compounds.

The opening of such a lab in Boston would mark one of the most significant research coups in recent New England history. The lab, which would not open until 2007 or 2008, will cost an estimated $200 million to build, with up to $1.4 billion more spent on research and related costs over the next 20 years.

"It will cement Boston's already well-known reputation as a leader in this field around the world," a government source familiar with the project said yesterday. "It's going to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Boston's economy. It's a big win for Boston."

But some potential neighbors of the lab are fighting the proposal, arguing that a densely populated urban environment is no place for the study of highly infectious diseases. Community groups in the South End and Roxbury rallied against the lab during the summer, announcing earlier this month that they intend to sue the university over safety and environmental concerns.

Although the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wouldn't name the candidates vying for the Level 4 lab, five other institutions have acknowledged that they had spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to draft intricate proposals: the University of California at Davis, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, University of Maryland, and the New York State Department of Health. Many faced community concerns similar to those in Boston.

Federal officials yesterday declined to comment on BU's selection, but Boston's prominence in medical research was clearly an asset. The director of the infectious disease institute, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, made clear earlier this month that a primary consideration was a university's ability to draw on a wide range of research talent in its own backyard.

"We try to make the presence or absence of a critical mass of investigators a component in the decision-making process about where you want to place a physical facility," Fauci said in an interview. "We try to match them as best we can to utilize the physical capacity with the highest level of science. It does have an influence."

A spokeswoman for BU Medical Center, Ellen Berlin, said yesterday that the university had received no formal notice regarding the lab from the infectious disease agency, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. "We have not received any official word from NIH," Berlin said. "But I do expect them to make an announcement tomorrow."

In a city where big investments in biomedical research are common, few recent initiatives can match the $1.6 billion potential of the bioterror research facility. By comparison, a new institute to use the fruits of the Human Genome Project to cure disease and run jointly by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a $300 million project. A research building unveiled by Harvard Medical School last week as the biggest construction project ever in the university's history cost $260 million.

One of the few research initiatives with a price tag that eclipses the Level 4 lab is the move by Novartis Pharma AG of its research headquarters to Cambridge, a venture estimated to require a $4 billion investment and 10 years to complete. Still, scientists at the BU Medical Center lab will be able to perform work more hazardous than anything Novartis can conduct. That is because Level 4 labs are the only venues where researchers are sanctioned to study the agents on the Category A list of most-feared biological microbes in their most-dangerous forms.

For instance, only in a Level 4 lab can scientists handle anthrax in its aerosol form, when the potentially deadly bacteria is most easily inhaled. In the 2001 anthrax attacks, letters containing the substance unleashed deadly spores that killed five people.

Among the other bacteria and viruses on the Category A list of biological diseases and agents that can be studied: botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and an assortment of hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola and hantavirus.

Scientists who study biological threats have long clamored for more Level 4 lab space as they wait months, or even longer, to gain access to the three full-scale labs in operation in the United States, located at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland, and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio.

The quest to build more Level 4 labs quickened after the Sept. 11 attacks and the arrival of letters laden with anthrax. A federal commission advocated establishing a network of centers to explore the infectious agents most perilous to humans, with the goal of seeking cures and vaccines to arrest them.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announcement that it was soliciting proposals to build and operate either one or two of the world's most sophisticated labs ignited a feverish race among academic institutions.

But with the high profile generated by such labs comes the inevitable burst of controversy. In the months leading up to today's announcement of the selection, citizen groups in cities with institutions submitting bids challenged the wisdom of studying smallpox and Ebola in labs sitting just around the corner from the neighborhood diner and elementary school. Their concerns were bolstered by scientific watchdogs devoted to the peaceful use of laboratory research.

The Sunshine Project, an international nonprofit that bills itself as working "against the hostile use of biotechnology in the post-Cold War era," cautions that by sanctioning and paying for the creation of more high-level labs, the federal government risks placing dangerous agents in the hands of home-grown terrorists.

Opposition to BU Medical Center's proposal deepened during the summer, climaxing with the announced lawsuit and, last week, a protest on Massachusetts Avenue. That opposition -- led by two related activist organizations, Alternatives for Community & Environment and Safety Net -- paralleled BU's emergence as a top contender for the lab.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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