Top lab to make an ImPaKT on pathogens

For the first – and only – time, the public stepped inside an advanced containment facility which will soon be home to Western’s world-renowned infectious diseases research teams. After today, the facility will be sealed and accessible only to researchers looking to provide answers to some of the world’s most devastating infectious diseases

The $16-million Imaging Pathogens of Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry represents a strong line of offence against bacteria and viruses, such as HIV, West Nile, tuberculosis, Staph A and Zika.

Opened for tours on Monday, the facility “is unique in Canada and around the world,” said Eric Arts, Canada Research Chair in HIV Pathogenesis and Viral Control, and Director of ImPaKT.

“This facility advances Western’s position as a leader in infectious diseases research and opens up the potential to develop vaccines and new treatments to help eradicate some of the world’s most devastating illnesses,” said the Microbiology and Immunology professor.

Virus and bacteria research requires dedicated and specifically designed facilities, equipment and processes – meaning that imaging technologies available to those who study cardiovascular disease or cancer haven’t been available to pathogen researchers. Instead, they had to draw blood and test for disease biomarkers to examine how pathogens work in the body.

This new facility – which includes, in one room alone, four state-of-the-art imaging machines costing $7 million – enables researchers to examine pathogens and the body’s immune system at work in fighting them. Scientists can use these technologies to understand the pathogen’s effect on the body, the body’s response to treatment and how treatment interacts with the immune system.

“We are now able to study in real time how a pathogen can cause disease in the entire body, specifically organs and tissue systems, right down to the microscopic level,” Arts explained. “We’re the only people in the world who can do that.”

Across its 7,000 square feet, ImPaKT is made up of Level 2+ and Level 3 containment facilities – the Level 3 designation represents pathogens that are more easily transmitted, such as tuberculosis and West Nile.

Because of these designations, there are in place significant precautions to protect against and prevent contamination. Traffic flow is restricted, floors and ceilings are seamless with rubberized paint for ease of disinfection, ventilation systems have double redundancies that ensure safe airflow. Researchers in the Level 3 lab must wear gowns, Tyvek suits, gloves, boots, safety glasses and N95 respirators.

The facility includes biosafety labs, decontaminations suites, small-animal housing, a Polymerase Chain Reaction clean room and ultra-speed centrifugation suite,

But the imaging area is what makes the facility unique in the world, Arts said. There, animal models can be imaged in real time in a single suite that contains a Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner, Computerized Tomography (CT) scanner and a bioluminescence imaging system.

“The idea is to get all of the imaging, to get as much information as we can,” said Schulich professor Paula Foster, head of the Cellular and Molecular Imaging program at Robarts Research Institute.

That information provides layers of unique detail about the pathogen’s attack and the body’s immune response. And during that process, the animal model is in a closed system so that the human researchers are never exposed to the pathogen, said Schulich professor Greg Dekaban, Acting Chair in Microbiology and Immunology.

The facility involves contributions from more than a dozen scientists and researchers from across Western. It will also draw in collaborations with industry, biotech and pharmaceutical companies across the city and across the world.

“Collaboration is a key vision of ImPaKT, with imaging experts, immunologists, microbiologists and infectious disease experts sharing their expertise for the betterment of human health,” said Marlys Koschinsky, Scientific and Executive Director of Robarts.

The facility is funded through Western and Schulich and by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund.

London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos praised the work of those who designed and built the facilities as well as the researchers who will work there. “You will have an impact on people you don’t even know, who you’ve never even met.”

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