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FORUM: Campus, LLNL partnership will aid new lab

By Amy Agronis on May 30, 2003 in University

Though best known for its original national defense mission, since its inception in 1952 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory also has developed a broad science and technology portfolio. This year marks the 40th anniversary of bioscience conducted at Livermore. In that time, we have developed extensive programs in genomics, molecular biology, biochemistry, computational modeling, environmental causes of genetic damage and, in the last decade, a substantial effort toward the protection of public health.

During this period of groundbreaking research, Livermore has also enjoyed a productive, decades-long partnership with UC Davis in such research fields as cancer, agriculture and public health. Our work together at the UC Davis Cancer Center holds promise of revolutionary advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment. On the infectious disease front, over the past year UC Davis and Livermore have collaborated to develop rapid diagnostic tests to detect Salmonella (a bacterium that can be found in eggs, juice, fruit or vegetables), West Nile Virus, Camphylobacter (a bacterium present in undercooked chicken), exotic Newcastle disease (which threatens California's chicken population) and foot and mouth disease. It was only natural, then, for UC Davis and Livermore to team up in the current effort to bring to California a National Biocontainment Laboratory to diagnose serious infectious diseases and conduct research to develop new and better diagnostic techniques, treatments and vaccines.

The need for such a center on the West Coast is clear. California is especially vulnerable to the introduction of infectious diseases because of the extensive movement of people and goods across its borders and because of the importance of agriculture to the state's economy. Yet the closest Biosafety Level 4 laboratories equipped to study such emerging, rapidly spreading diseases as hantavirus, West Nile virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are in Canada and on the East Coast -- too far away for timely diagnosis and remediation in case of an outbreak. This lack of proximity also precludes any substantial involvement in research requiring these facilities by UC Davis faculty and other researchers throughout the West.

The new center at UC Davis would provide California and western public health officials, emergency response personnel, and researchers with the facility and tools they need to rapidly and safely develop diagnostics, response strategies, treatments and vaccines for the most serious public health threats to our state and region -- whether those threats occur naturally or are intentionally introduced.

While the need for the center is obvious, what may be less so is precisely how UC Davis and Livermore plan to work together to bring its public health and research benefits to the state, region and nation. For a model of how a UC Davis-Livermore collaboration would work regarding public health protection, food safety, emerging diseases, and tools to help emergency responders detect chemical and biological threats to a community, one need look no further than the remarkable success story written by the cancer program based at the UC Davis Cancer Center.

This unusual collaboration, the nation's first large-scale partnership between a university cancer center and a national laboratory, amounts to a teaming of two cultures: the clinical researchers and faculty oncologists from UC Davis, and the advanced biomedical technologies and scientists of Livermore lab. Working together in multidisciplinary teams, scientists from the two institutions are investigating new approaches to cancer research through cutting-edge studies in cancer genetics, molecular pharmacology and new drug development. Basic science research in toxicology, carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, animal sciences and DNA repair are also part of the collaboration.

In the cancer program, each partner brings both a strong research program and specialized capabilities. UC Davis contributes the patient-centered research and clinical experience of its scientists. Livermore adds access to high-powered computers, imaging devices, accelerator mass spectrometers, lasers and sensors. And through its ability to develop applications, Livermore is able to help translate the scientists' work into products that can be used for cancer detection, prevention and treatment. The combined benefit of basic research and access to technology and applications was cited last year as a key factor in the federal government's decision to award the Cancer Center its prestigious designation as a National Cancer Institute.

In the same way, the National Biocontain-ment Laboratory would marry the infectious disease expertise of UC Davis scientists with Livermore's technology and expertise in rapid detection of airborne and food-borne pathogens. As one of the major partners in the center, Livermore would actively participate in research and help translate basic research results into specific capabilities for emergency responders, and the protection of public health.

The center's research would be open, peer-reviewed and published. Its research and the development of new detection and diagnostic tools used by emergency responders and health officials could be used by other scientists studying medicine and agriculture. Livermore has been conducting similar peer-reviewed and published research in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and others for several years. The proposed laboratory would speed development of detection systems and broaden the range of pathogens that can be detected, increasing protection of the public from infectious disease.

The National Institutes of Health, which is providing the bulk of the funding for the new biocontainment laboratories and centers, has made it clear that these facilities are needed not only to meet significant high-priority national research needs, but also to deliver research products that will advance the development of vaccines, drugs, antibiotics and diagnostic tools that can be used by physicians and veterinarians. UC Davis and Livermore, with our long history of multidisciplinary teamwork that turns research into applications, are ideal partners to help find practical solutions to the threats posed to our state, region and nation by existing and newly emerging infectious diseases, whether those diseases occur naturally or are intentionally introduced.

• Bert Weinstein is acting associate director for biology and biotechnology research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,