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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 21, 2007

Plans for biosafe lab delayed 2 years

 •  University of Hawaii imports deadly viruses

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Plans for a new University of Hawai'i regional biosafety laboratory in Kaka'ako are at least two years behind schedule because of concerns about operational and construction costs.

The laboratory was supposed to break ground this year and open by 2010, under terms of a $25 million National Institutes of Health grant made in 2005. However, the project, which also received $12.5 million in matching state funds, now is expected to open sometime in 2012 at the earliest.

The lab, which is part of a UH push to specialize in infectious disease detection and drug discovery, was originally proposed for Waimano Ridge above Pearl City. However, UH asked for and received permission from the NIH to relocate to the Kaka'ako medical school campus because of the need for extensive infrastructure improvements at the Waimano site.

That added about a one-year delay, said Duane Gubler, director of Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the UH medical school. The project also stalled because of concerns that the facility's operating costs would drain UH resources. That concern now is resolved, however, the delays have resulted in increased construction costs.

UH now needs $11 million more to build the new biosafety level 3, or BSL 3, lab. The university is seeking an added $9 million from NIH and $2 million from the state to cover those costs, Gubler said. UH also has asked NIH for an extension to the original 2010 deadline to open the new lab. UH hopes to get NIH approval within the next month.

"It's been a frustrating experience," he said. "Right now, it looks good that it's going to happen.

"NIH is still talking to us so that tells us they think that the (2010) deadline can be extended."

If the NIH approves, groundbreaking could occur in 2010. The new lab would work in conjunction with a separate BSL 3 lab already located in Kaka'ako. Unlike the existing BSL 3 lab, the new laboratory will be built above-ground and use generators also located above ground. Such laboratories are used to work with microbes that can cause serious or lethal disease as a result of inhalation.

UH said the labs will enable researchers to develop new diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines for infectious Asia-Pacific diseases such as avian influenza, SARS, tuberculosis and West Nile encephalitis. The new lab also will put UH in a better position to compete for NIH grants, which will cover the facility's ongoing operating costs, Gubler said.

"Once you have one of these laboratories then you belong to a rather unique group of scientists that work very closely with NIH," he said. "NIH isn't putting hundreds of millions of dollars into these networks just to let them go fallow. They want them working so they'll be useful in the case of a national emergency."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.