Veterinary lab officials hope for renovation funds

Branden Peterson

When scientists stare into microscopes to investigate specific viruses, bacteria and other animal pathogens, they need an environment as clean as a surgeon’s hands before operating.

It’s simple. Scientists have abandoned work space filled with rusty sinks, brown-stained counter tops, cracked floor tiles and ventilation hoods that look better suited for an auto shop than the official laboratory for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

Despite a looming state budget deficit, the University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory officials said they hope to receive funds for a renovation.

“We work with pathogens Ö so you need proper biosafety cabinets, proper ventilation, proper ways to clean the environment after you work with those materials,” said Dr. Jim Collins, director of the University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

In 1999, renovation plans were drawn to bring lab building 385’s first floor into the 21st century. However, the 5,200-square-foot renovation’s estimated $1.5 million price tag has kept the project sidelined.

Last year, when the diagnostic laboratory sent a renovation proposal to the state legislature apart from the University’s budget request, the plans came close to fruition. But after getting the OK from both the state House and Senate, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed the improvements.

The renovation proposal will soon head back to the Legislature. But this time, the renovation proposal will ride on the back of the University’s $61 million supplemental capital budget request, which includes five other projects vetoed by Ventura in the spring of 2002. The Legislature is not required to consider this request in the coming year.

Collins felt this year’s request has a better chance of success because it is paired with the University’s supplemental capital request.

“To make it into the University’s request at all Ö we’re very pleased,” Collins said.

Still, it won’t be easy. Lawmakers are slashing budgets across the board to cope with the state’s projected $4.56 billion budget deficit.

Inside the approximately 40-year-old laboratory in building 385, some lab space sits mostly unused. Meanwhile, researchers in the rest of the three-building facility work virtually on top of each other in the organization’s remaining laboratory areas.

The organization now completes twice the amount of tests conducted when the last building was added in 1992. Relatively new diseases have accounted for part of the increased workload.

“If you’re looking at West Nile virus and chronic wasting disease, they’re things we couldn’t plan for,” Collins said. “The building was originally built with extra space, but now we’ve consumed all that space.”

Cardboard boxes, coolers, extra supplies, old equipment and a lone scientist inhabit the laboratory in building 385.

“It’s a huge amount of space that’s not being productively used because it’s so dilapidated,” Collins said.

Besides laboratory improvements, the plans would add a men’s bathroom to the first floor along with graduate student and faculty offices.

Molecular diagnostics focusing on DNA, RNA and other gene work will be conducted in the renovated laboratory with as many as 20 people completing research on the floor.

Herd tests negative

The Board of Animal Health announced Wednesday that 34 elk from Benton County tested negative for chronic wasting disease. The herd was euthanized and tested after a single elk from Aitkin County was found with the emaciating disease and traced back to the Benton County herd.

The disease is found in several parts of North America, and Minnesota’s first case of chronic wasting disease was diagnosed in a farmed elk in August.

Since the diagnosis, the state’s deer and elk populations have been highly monitored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health. The elk have been tested by the University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

The lab has processed approximately 4,500 deer samples submitted by the DNR and another 700 that were sent by hunters.

Collins said a few mechanical failures have recently slowed processing, but most testing has gone smoothly. The lab has completed approximately half of all chronic wasting disease testing for the year.

To date, the disease has been confirmed in two elk. Both are from Minnesota farms.

The disease affects an animal’s brain and nervous system, causing significant weight loss and a slow deterioration of health. Officials are unsure whether the disease has entered the state’s wild deer and elk populations.