Prince William lab helps fight bioterrorism

The biodefense lab at Mason's Prince William Campus researches infectious diseases and bioterrorism (photo courtesy of NCBID).
The biodefense lab at Mason's Prince William Campus researches infectious diseases and bioterrorism (photo courtesy of NCBID).

During the week of April 17, 2013, a man mailed ricin-laced letters to a congressman and the president of the United States. Ricin is highly toxic and is often fatal to humans. While no one was injured in the incident, it was highly reminiscent of the 2001 anthrax letters that killed five and stunned the nation.

In lieu of these attacks, new facilities were created between 2001 and 2005 to investigate bioterrorism and to fortify national defense against viral agents. One of these facilities was the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases (NCBID), founded in 2001 and located at George Mason University’s Prince William Campus.

From a distance, the facility is as intimidating as the title sounds. Entry to the lab requires passage through a checkpoint, beyond a barbed wire fence, and past another few layers of security. The extensive security is entirely necessary because inside the center are some of the world’s deadliest pathogens.

The NCBID was founded to research and counter the potential threat of bioterrorism in the United States, which largely consists of sending a host infected with a deadly and contagious disease. NCBID researches a variety of diseases and their potential as weapons, learning to combat any disease that poses a threat.

Given the domestic security aspects of their work, the facility is largely funded through government grants. However, the facility occasionally tests products for private industry. When asked about the recent letters, the facility’s Executive Director Charles Bailey clarified that while ricin, derived from castor beans, is a biological threat, most of their research involves viral agents. While certainly toxic, ricin is not a disease and is not treated in the same capacity.

“Right now we’re doing anthrax, plague…” Bailey said. “A lot of people don’t realize that people still get bubonic plague every year. We also work on Tularemia (rabbit fever), Rift Valley fever, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis virus and Dengue fever.”

Recently, NCBID has investigated various medical properties of curcumin, a rather popular household spice that could potentially be used to fight cancer.

Kylene Kehn-Hall also explained some of the specifics of the viral research at the NCBID. Kehn-Hall is one of the researchers at the lab and is currently a tenure-track assistant professor. Like the other researchers at the facility, she deals directly with Biosafety Level 3 bacteria and viruses, which causes diseases that are fatal to humans but are treatable.

Kehn-Hall explained how the researchers induce mutations into the virus and shift the genetic sequence over time. This very gradual process renders a virus harmless but keeps it similar enough to be developed as a vaccine.

“Through research we can understand why this virus causes diseases and that virus doesn’t—what makes a vaccine a good vaccine,” Kehn-Hall said.

The lab is currently investigating how viruses affect the growth of cells. Discoveries in infected cell growth have proven similar to developments in cancerous cells and have opened new opportunities for the NCBID.

“We can take advantage of the advances in cancer research now and utilize similar drugs,” Kehn-Hall said.

Ultimately, the team at the NCBID hopes their research can help manage diseases abroad while limiting the potential domestic threat.

“We’re working towards better, faster diagnoses,” Bailey said. “A diagnosis before symptoms even occur.”

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