New bio-secure facility to battle deadly diseases

By Tim Dean
Friday, 18 November, 2011

It’s home to some of the nastiest viruses known to science. The new AAHL Collaborative Biosecurity Research Facility (ACBRF) in Geelong is one of the world’s most advanced bio-secure laboratory, and it was officially opened for business today.

If you’ve ever read the classic old Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain you’ll know the rigours involved in entering – let alone constructing – such a bio-secure facility.

The ACBRF is built to physical containment level 3 and 4 (PC3 and PC4) standards, with the latter being as high as such standards go. The only thing allowed out of such a facility is people, and the odd item or biosample under the strictest of containment protocols.

Nothing else leaves. That includes clothes, shoes, jewellery, computers, notebooks, cameras and anything that can’t be doused in disinfectant and fumigated on the way out.

This means to enter a PC4 facility, one must remove all clothes (including underwear) and don a laboratory-approved outfit, which is left behind when leaving before thorough decontamination showering.

It’s that serious. And for good reason. The ACBRF contains samples of a slew of critters one wouldn’t want slipping loose, including SARS, Hendra virus and that family favourite: Ebola virus.

The facility, which is a part of the CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), was opened today by Minister for Innovation, Senator Kim Carr, and will be immediately put to work battling worrisome viruses that threaten people, livestock and wildlife, including Hendra.

According to AAHL Director, Professor Martyn Jeggo, in addition to identifying and characterising viruses, the new facility will be used to investigate the origin and treatment of animal and ‘zoonotic’ diseases – that is, diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals.

“There is an urgent need to move forward with a collaborative effort, commonly referred to as a ‘One Health’ approach, which links human, animal and environmental health professionals together,” he said.

“The One Health approach is becoming crucial with about 70 per cent of emerging diseases affecting humans originating in animals – including Hendra, bird flu and SARS.”

The ACBRF also incorporates a linked Australian Microscopy and Microanalysis Research Facility. This enables researchers to view the critters in their live state and in action rather than frozen in a static shot.

The 350 m2 facility was built with the aid of $8.5 million in Federal funding, through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

The CSIRO has a reputation for conducting world-leading research into dangerous diseases, even scoring a mention in the recent film Contagion.

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