Tucked away on a quiet road near Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University sits a stoic brick building, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. The unassuming exterior belies the critical research taking place inside the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory (RBL), a level-three biosafety facility in Grafton that safely allows for research of highly contagious microorganisms.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) selected Tufts University as one of 12 sites across the United States to house one of these special laboratories, which were mandated by Congress in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The original intent was for the laboratories to focus on responding to bioterrorism, such as the anthrax attacks that occurred that same year. However, many of the labs have since evolved into researching emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.
“The NIH had considerable foresight in putting these laboratories out there, because they’re now at the front lines of our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sam Telford III, a professor in the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health (IDGH) at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the RBL.
Telford was one of many Tufts faculty members who contributed to the 200-page proposal to the NIH requesting that Tufts be granted a facility. The project was spearheaded by Saul Tzipori, distinguished professor and Agnes Varis University Chair in Science and Society at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The initial effort began in 2003, when Tzipori received a $25 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a biodefense countermeasure portfolio-work that would require a level three biosafety (BSL-3) facility, which Tufts did not have at the time. This funding opportunity offered an incentive for the university to permit Tzipori to apply for the facility.
The NIH ultimately provided approximately 75% of the total construction cost of $32 million, with the required matching funds provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through a Massachusetts Life Science Center grant of $9.5 million. Tufts University set aside $7 million of university funds in an endowment to partially offset annual operating costs. Over the last two years, Cummings School received more than $7 million in grants from the NIH for infrastructure improvements to upgrade the facility’s technologic and scientific capabilities. This influx of funding ensured that critical building systems are safely operational and sustainable for the next 10 years.
Tzipori, who has spent his career researching infectious disease, was the first director of the RBL and stepped down in 2016. He keeps a shovel from the RBL’s groundbreaking ceremony in his office.
“It took a pandemic, but we are finally seeing the RBL live up to its full potential as a bustling hub of cutting-edge infectious disease research focused on the health of humans and animals alike,” said Tzipori. “It’s a career dream come to fruition. For years to come, the RBL will enable Cummings School and Tufts University to be a safe place for investigators to advance research efforts on diseases that affect millions of people worldwide.”