University to open new lab to track animal diseases

The $2.4 million facility would aid in diagnostic work should a breakout of viruses occur.

Hypothetically, a bird flu outbreak could hit Minnesota. But if it does, the University would be ready to assist in stopping the spread.

A $2.4 million laboratory opening on campus this week would serve as a staging ground for diagnostic work, should an epidemic of airborne or other viruses break out in Minnesota.

The main purpose of the lab is to perform necropsies, which are autopsies on animals, University poultry pathologist Andre Ziegler said. The focus would be on diagnosing how animals died.

“It’s not really research-focused,” he said. “It’s more service and diagnostics-focused.”

The lab, located at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory on the St. Paul campus, has a special safety designation – biosafety level three, meaning it will provide a safe environment to study airborne diseases such as bird flu, Ziegler said.

“This provides us some pretty substantial flexibility to deal with those sorts of things in a secure fashion,” he said.

The lab would be an extension of the existing biosafety level two lab currently operating, Jim Collins, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said. In the event of an airborne disease, however, the new lab would be used.

Biosafety level two is suitable for handling most infectious diseases. Only 55 facilities exist in the nation to handle bird flu testing, Collins said.

“The beauty of it is it’s been designed to be a convertible laboratory,” he said.


For the new lab, which was under construction for about a year beginning amid bird flu concerns, safety is essential, Ron Joki, senior University scientist and manager of the new laboratory, said.

Any scientist using the lab must wear a special full-body suit, a respiratory mask and boots that don’t leave the lab, he said. Showering and using special footbaths are necessary before entering the lab.

Airlock doors are used for entry of both scientists and animal specimens, Joki said.

“It keeps the bad stuff in and the good stuff out,” he said.

Many animals will pass through the lab in less than two-hour periods, Joki said. After the necropsy is preformed, the animal and the suits worn by the scientists are put in a special pressure cooker to sterilize them before disposal.

Even the air and water are decontaminated before they leave the lab, Joki said.

Scientists will spend the first month in the new lab simulating a biosafety level-three environment. After certification by University experts at the end of the month, the lab will function as normal, Joki said.

“A big part of the safety is training,” he said.

Bird flu a ‘driving force’

The new necropsy lab is an addition to the already-standing Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is the official diagnostic lab for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

Bill Hartmann, the board’s director and the state veterinarian, said having a diagnostic lab with a biosafety level three is important to help track diseases that can spread from animals to humans.

“The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is really crucial to the functioning of all of our disease control programs,” he said. “This new facility is important to us in that it allows us to work with animal diseases that have the potential for making people sick.”

Hartmann called the threat of bird flu a “driving force” behind the creation of the lab.

Collins said the contagious H5N1 strain of bird flu is still causing problems in Asia and Africa, but that the virus is more stable than originally thought.

“It’s not showing evidence of mutation or adapting to humans at this time,” he said.

The lab, however, is not specifically for bird flu. Linda Glaser, a veterinarian in the cattle programs division of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said strains of tuberculosis and anthrax in cattle have been sent to the lab in the past.

“We would take those animals to the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and work with a pathologist there on a necropsy,” she said.

Two other bio-safety level-three labs are opening on campus – one in the old department of health building and another near the TCF Bank Stadium site, Joki said. They’ll focus on research and not diagnosis.

Ziegler said this laboratory is important in terms of monitoring animal diseases.

“These laboratories are very, very uncommon,” he said. “It does represent something unique.”