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BU biolab may start research this fall

Will seek waiver for lesser hazards

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / August 12, 2011

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A controversial Boston University laboratory building that has stood empty since construction finished in 2008 may open this fall to biomedical research involving pathogens less hazardous than those that sparked opposition to the project.

BU officials plan to announce today that they will seek a waiver from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to begin work on biosafety level-2 research - defined by the federal government as “involving agents that pose moderate hazards to personnel and the environment.’’ The university initially plans to do experiments with the bacteria that cause tuberculosis.

For years, the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories - a high-security biolab designed to allow scientists to conduct research on the world’s deadliest germs, such as Ebola and plague - has been tied up by legal challenges and regulatory reviews.

BU is not abandoning plans to open portions of the building, located on its medical campus in the South End, as a biosafety level-4 laboratory. That project is undergoing an environmental safety review by the National Institutes of Health.

“There’s an environmental risk assessment process underway, which we feel very strongly about waiting for its outcome. It’s important that process be continued, be thorough,’’ said Stephen Burgay, senior vice president for external affairs at BU. “The resolution of that is sometime down the road,’’ he added, and meanwhile, “it makes sense to put this lower safety level space to use rather than to let it sit there empty.’’

In a statement, the university noted that obtaining the waiver would allow it to apply for permits to do biosafety level-3 research, which requires more protective practices and involves “agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease’’ through inhalation exposure, according to the federal government.

Researchers, however, will not do any level-3 research until the ongoing federal review is completed, BU said.

BU officials spoke with a community liaison committee yesterday afternoon and a spokeswoman said they plan to continue the discussions with the neighbors.

Klare Allen, a community organizer with the Safety Net, a neighborhood group that opposes the lab, said the group would carefully review BU’s plans to open the lower-safety level laboratory space.

“I think it’s really great we don’t have to deal with the level-4 right now,’’ Allen said. “That’s really a wonderful victory for the community.’’

Allen said the health of the community has to come first and even the lower safety-level lab should be carefully vetted.

According to Ann Scales, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, there are more than 1,000 biosafety level-2 laboratories in the city, and 11 permitted level-3 laboratories.

The biosafety level-4 laboratory for research on the most dangerous pathogens takes up only 16 percent of the space in the 192,000-square-foot BU building. Burgay said that in the year after the building was complete, protocols for research and security were developed and vetted. After that, training of personnel began, including safety drills and research simulations. The decision to apply for the waiver now was the fruit of those efforts, Burgay said.

“It was delayed by the various court actions and various regulatory actions that have happened over the past several years; there’s no question those postponed opening of any part of the lab,’’ Burgay said. “We just made a decision one to two years ago, to just begin to put all the protocols together and begin training. . . . With a core of scientists now ready to go, we’re seeking permissions that would, among other things, allow us to start level two work this fall.“

Ellen Berlin, a spokeswoman for BU, said that about 15 to 20 researchers would move into the new laboratory space.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.