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A photo of staff in the new Upstate Vector Biocontainment Laboratory.

Upstate opens new Vector Biocontainment Lab to propel research on coronavirus and other infectious diseases

Upstate Medical University has opened a new Vector Biocontainment Laboratory, a first-of-its-kind facility to open and operate at Upstate.

The new VBL facility will allow Upstate to conduct more extensive research on infectious diseases such as coronavirus, Lyme disease, West Nile encephalitis, Zika and more. The new lab is a BSL-3, which means it has an advanced biosafety level as dictated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that includes safety precautions for research on potentially dangerous diseases and their carriers.

Saravanan Thangamani, PhD, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Upstate and director of the Upstate Vector Biocontainment Lab, has been involved in designing the new facility from the moment he arrived at Upstate in spring 2019. Thangamani previously worked at The University of Texas Medical Branch where he did research in and helped operate both BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Thangamani, an internationally renowned expert on tick-borne disease research, will utilize the new facility in collaboration with SUNY researchers to develop universal anti-tick vaccine and novel countermeasures against arboviral infections.

“It is an integrated containment facility that gives us great versatility,” Thangamani said. “Upstate’s new Vector Biocontainment Lab is a small facility with huge potential.”

Upstate President Mantosh Dewan, MD, made the announcement Friday, March 12 at Upstate’s Institute for Human Performance with SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras. 

“For Upstate to add a BLS-3 Vector Biocontainment Lab to our long list of cutting-edge research facilities is a fantastic accomplishment,” Dewan said. “Dr. Thangamani, Dr. Stephen J. Thomas and many others have devoted a great deal of time to planning this lab, which will further propel the already ground-breaking work of the Upstate Institute for Global Health and Translational Science. The last year has reminded the world of the importance of research into emerging infectious diseases and Upstate will once again be at the forefront of that work thanks to this incredible new facility.”

New capabilities include culturing cells to infect with a virus to better understand entry mechanisms and the effectiveness of various therapeutic drugs. Researchers will also be able to infect mosquitos and ticks (vectors) with a disease to better understand how it is transmitted from one organism to another – a priority for Thangamani, he said.

The VBL also features a Human Challenge Room, where a human test subject may receive a mosquito bite, allowing for natural disease transmission and a potentially more accurate understanding of the disease and how to treat it, he said.

“You would find this only at the CDC or in an Army laboratory,” Thangamani said of the Human Challenge Room. “It’s rare to find this in an academic setting. That’s just one example of what we can do here.”

Construction began on the 2,500-square foot space on the fourth floor of the Institute for Human Performance in fall 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic halted construction for several months and delayed the opening by nearly a year, Thangamani said.

“COVID-19 underscores the invaluable work of infectious disease experts and the importance of providing them with a state-of-the-art space and equipment,” Chancellor Malatras said. “Tick, mosquito, and other pathogens are serious and need robust study. The new Vector Biocontainment Lab at SUNY Upstate Medical will harness and maximize the scientific expertise across our university system to allow scientists to make discoveries, for the clinicians to develop treatments, and for the patient to seek and receive cures. It’s fitting that this lab will operate at Upstate Medical, an institution that’s contributed so much to battle against this coronavirus—from creating the world’s most accurate saliva test to leading trials on the Pfizer vaccine. I want to thank Dr. Mantosh Dewan, Dr. Saravanan Thangamani and the entire Upstate team for continuing to chart the path, and New York state for a generous investment that will mitigate and minimize public health threats for decades to come.”

The lab hosted an online panel discussion to address the new facility’s capabilities on the day of the opening. 

“The VBL will be a game-changer for the Upstate research enterprise and the region,” said Stephen J. Thomas, director of the Institute for Global Health and Translational Sciences. “It will be an incredibly powerful tool to support our responses to the public health threats caused by ticks, mosquitoes and other pathogens.”

Thangamani said the immediate focus of the VBL will be studying the coronavirus as well as tick-borne Lyme disease and Powassan Virus, and mosquito-borne chikungunya virus, dengue fever and Zika Virus, among others.

The new facility includes BSL-1, -2 and -3 capabilities. Four researchers can be working on BSL-1 and -2 projects while another four can be working on the more advanced BSL-3 projects concurrently. The entire lab and its staff can be converted to a BSL-3 facility quickly and easily, however, Thangamani said, which could be helpful in another health crisis like the last year’s pandemic. 

“That is the beauty of the new facility – it allows us the flexibility to change our direction and then investigate new, emerging pathogens,” Thangamani said. “By having this state-of-the-art facility we don’t have to play the catch-up game. We can be ahead of the curve in trying to get a handle on the viruses before they become a pandemic. This puts Upstate in a better position to be able to do that.” 

The facility is funded by a NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant, which was awarded to propel long-term economic and academic plans on SUNY campuses across the state. Thangamani is founder of the Citizen Science Tick Testing Program at Upstate, which involves the collection and testing of thousands of ticks from across New York state. For more on that project visit Thangamani-lab.com.

Caption: Upstate Vector Biocontainment Laboratory staff in the new space from left to right: Erin Reynolds, Erin Hassett, Charles Hart, Saravanan Thangamani, Jahnavi Bhaskar, Ivona Petzlova and Allen Esterly.