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Stephen Dahl, Director of Biological Safety, on playing it safe:
Research labs are filled with a lot of potentially dangerous biological material — toxins, viruses, parasites and other infectious agents. Biological safety offices assure that these materials are used and maintained safely. It’s a job that receives little attention — unless something goes wrong.
Every once in a while, a high-profile case calls attention to the issue of biological safety. For instance, this past spring, a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco died of meningococcal disease, apparently contracted from bacteria he handled in the lab. Just how risky is it to work in a typical research lab?
DAHL: Laboratories doing biological research at Johns Hopkins are safe places. The potential hazards associated with the work are recognized and the staff trained in the procedures necessary for handling the material safely. That doesn’t mean there is no risk. Staff and students working with known human pathogens must be diligent in what they do, but if they make a mistake or something goes wrong, we have protective equipment and procedures in place for reporting and treating potential exposures so that incidents should not have bad outcomes. For this reason, I think you are likely safer in the lab than you are in your backyard where you’re at risk for exposure to mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, or deer ticks carrying Lyme disease, or rodent droppings potentially harboring hantavirus.
What sorts of regulations and guidelines govern research at Johns Hopkins labs?
DAHL: Regulation of laboratories occurs at the federal, state and institutional level. The federal government mandates oversight of recombinant DNA research through the Office of Biotechnology Activities (OBA) and requires that we have an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) to review recombinant research at JHU and ensure it occurs within federal requirements, including assigning the biosafety containment level of the work to be performed. There is also federal oversight of any research that involves select agents — bacteria, viruses, fungi and biological toxins — that have been identified by the federal government as potential terror threats. Finally, there are Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements that safeguard against bloodborne pathogens from human-derived materials.
At the state level, Maryland regulates the disposal of microbiological and special medical waste. At the institutional level, The Johns Hopkins University has policies in place including a requirement for review and approval prior to obtaining or using potential pathogens, infectious agents and biological toxins. We use the guidance set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health in the Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories as our compliance standard.
Are institutions obligated to follow these policies and regulations? Are there any laws that back them up?
DAHL: Sure. Although they are referred to as “guidelines,” failure to comply with the NIH expectations for research involving recombinant DNA can result in the withdrawal of NIH funding. The select agent rules established by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 require compliance under the penalty of fines and even jail time. There have been investigators and institutions prosecuted for such non-compliance. I think the prosecution of Dr. Thomas Butler at Texas Tech is the most high-profile case involving a select agent. I believe he was sentenced to two years in jail for issues surrounding transport and possession of Yersinia pestis, the agent responsible for bubonic plague. With regard to safe work places, OSHA can, and has, levied fines for non-compliance.
What about H5N1, the avian influenza virus? Is it on the list of select agents requiring these extra security precautions?
DAHL: Highly pathogenic avian influenza is on the select agent list, and H5N1 falls in that category. The recent controversy regarding the research aimed at identifying mutations that can make H5N1 more virulent is really a dual-use issue though. Not long after the Bioterrorism Act went into effect, the federal government, through the Fink report, expressed concern about research that could be useful to nefarious sorts. The publication of the DNA sequence of the 1918 flu virus was a trigger, but recombinant work that could make a virus or bacteria more virulent or deadly or no longer susceptible to antibiotics would be another good example. Such research became so called “dual-use” because the work could be useful to the biomedical community in terms of understanding a given disease, but also useful to terrorists hoping to create a more deadly agent for their arsenal. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was created in response to the Fink report, and it was their initial concern that halted publication of the research on H5N1 mutations. Actually, the NSABB has suggested that the Institutional Biosafety Committees be tasked with providing dual-use review at their respective institutions. It remains to be seen how that will end up.
Can you describe the scope of your work as director of Biological Safety and the purview of your office?
DAHL: The Biosafety Office makes sure all labs comply with federal, state and Johns Hopkins regulations, guidance and policies concerning biological materials and overall laboratory safety. We perform this role in conjunction with the 10-member Institutional Biosafety Committee. We have roughly 1,000 investigators with about 4,000 lab spaces under our oversight, some 3,000 research registrations including about 100 clinical trials that involve the use of recombinant DNA and/or microbial agents, 1,300 biological safety cabinets, clean air benches and animal transfer stations that we maintain and certify for proper operation, and a handful of high-containment laboratories that work on organisms such as tuberculosis. Of course we also have a training component to our role at the institution and emergency response if needed.
What’s most challenging about your job?
DAHL: Convincing people that biological safety measures are important. Investigators tend to be an independent breed. They are creative and driven, and the challenge for us is making sure everyone is aware that personal safety and the safety of others have to be an important component of their research programs.
So how do you persuade people to comply with the rules?
DAHL: I try to make it as palatable as possible. We acknowledge that our investigators are under increasing compliance and administrative loads and do what we can to minimize hassle, while keeping everyone safe and compliant with existing rules and regulations. We try to convey the message that lab safety is important, required by various oversight entities, and that the consequences of an injury or incident, even if the risk appears small, are big in terms of the people involved and the institution’s reputation as a thriving place for biomedical training and research.
Some aspects of your job seem stressful — for example, reminding busy scientists to take time to comply with safety requirements. What do you find gratifying about your job?
DAHL: There are times in this job when I clearly make a positive contribution to an investigator’s research program or laboratory safety either by assisting with a pesky tissue culture contamination issue, or resolving the safety aspects of a multi-step process, or contributing to compliance documentation requirements for a grant application. Then I get a few moments to bask in the sun. I also find the teaching component of the job rather satisfying. I enjoy the challenge of crafting a talk that is both informative and entertaining out of the rather dry subject of lab safety.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks