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Nature New Focus of USF Lab Targeting Biological Terror

There's some very interesting research being conducted (literally) right in my own back yard. The University of South Florida's (USF) Center for Biological Defense is focused on the emerging infections cooked up by Mother Nature herself. Here is an overview of what's happening at the Tampa campus:

Some people were skeptical when the Center for Biological Defense opened at the University of South Florida 11 years ago. There had been only one biological attack in U.S. history – a Salmonella poisoning at an Oregon salad bar that sickened 751 people. Within two years, the fledgling lab was Florida's bioterror research and detection center, with up to 100 samples of potentially deadly white powder arriving for testing every day. Soon it would get $4 million from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Today, $67 million later, the USF Center for Biological Defense is focused on a different kind of threat – the emerging infections cooked up by Mother Nature, whom lab supervisor Andrew Cannons called "a much better terrorist than man could ever be."

Judging by the five security doors a visitor must pass through to reach one of the labs, it's work that requires a good deal of protection. USF is trying to be ready for "what's around the corner," Cannons said, be it a deadly new virus, antibiotic-resistant organism or food-borne illness. And the grim truth, Cannons said, is that the operation might not exist if not for the anthrax letter attacks that closely followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers.

Before most people had even heard of anthrax or the antibiotic Cipro, Phil Amuso, of the Florida Department of Health, and then-USF research vice president George Newkome sketched out the biological defense center on a Dunkin' Donuts napkin. Biological dangers weren't at the top of people's minds, but the threats were out there, Amuso said. "We were looking for ways DOH could work with the university" to deal with them if they did emerge.

In 2000, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican from Seminole, helped USF get about $1 million to work in partnership with the Department of Health, drawing on research from the University of Florida, University of West Florida and Florida Atlantic University. "I saw a growing threat from people around the world who were anti-American and I was concerned about someone who might try to poison our water supplier or damage air filtration systems," Young said.

"After 9/11, the threats became far more serious and far more specific."

About a week after the attacks, anthrax spores spilled out of letters delivered to two U.S. senators and several media offices, including the National Inquirer in Lantana, Florida. Five people eventually died.

The following week, on Sept. 26, USF announced the center had been awarded $4 million to build a system to prepare public health workers to deal with bioterrorism attacks. The next year it announced a $9 million Department of Defense grant. "It went up and up and up," Cannons said.

The center focused heavily on helping emergency responders gather samples, creating a streamlined process that ensured the sample would be preserved untainted and workers would be protected. Then they developed a fast way to figure out whether any substance was dangerous. The new test could identify anthrax spores in about 15 minutes. That led to rapid new methods for genetically identifying the "bugs" and finding out if they had been seen elsewhere and would respond to antibiotics or not.

Along the way, the center amassed "a unique collection of bacteria that no one else has," Cannons said. It includes about 1,500 strains, "most of them not nasty." The lab has a federal biosafety level of 3; the highest is 4. Level 3 includes bacteria and viruses that can be deadly but are treatable. It follows strict Centers for Disease Control safety rules, Cannons said.

The center keeps a low profile in a state Department of Health building on the Tampa campus of USF. It doesn't hide its presence, but it doesn't advertise it, either. Everything except beyond the lobby is behind one or more locked doors. No photography of the lab equipment is allowed. Cannons didn't explain why, other than to say it was the DOH's rule. "It's not all that exciting anyway," he said.

The biological defense center is quiet these days. Its reduced to pre-Sept. 11 levels. But its mission hasn't changed, Cannons said. It still trains emergency workers on how to handle biological threats. Since it opened, it has trained more than 25,000 people from around the country, said Harry Glenn, spokesman for Rep. Young.

Its Advanced Biosensors Lab continues to refine ways to recognize and identify dangerous organisms. Much of the staff's time is spent testing detection and decontamination equipment developed by others. The center is part of a $1.3 million Defense Department grant to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to test whether the mucus sharks use to fight infection could help wounded soldiers.

In addition to its work on emerging infections, the center has also begun working with the state Department of Agriculture to develop a food-testing program. "We're trying to be ready," Cannon said. "You can't really know what's coming." That's the nature of these threats. "But you can respond as soon as it happens."

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