BOSTON — Tufts University is a few weeks away from breaking ground on a $25.8-million, federally funded biocontainment laboratory in Grafton, Mass., but a community group that is opposed to the project won’t say whether it will file a lawsuit to quash the project.
Grafton’s planning board on April 23 approved the 37,950-square-foot Regional Biosafety Laboratory for Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The lab is one of 13 such labs that the National Institutes of Health envisions will take root around the country under a US program to combat emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism.
Construction is set to start this summer on the Tufts lab, which would be the first building to be built within the university’s Grafton Science Park and is projected to open in late 2009.
The planning board acted over objections by a residents group, Grafton Residents for a Safe Community. Bob Carroll, a member and spokesman for the group, said last month after the planning board’s vote that he could not discuss whether the group would seek to overturn the approval in court because his group had not yet discussed its next step.?
Carroll did not immediately respond to a May 3 e-mail message seeking an update.
If the citizens’ group proceeds with a lawsuit against the planning board, it would follow the path of a Boston community group, which has taken its opposition to a biocontainment lab planned by Boston University Medical Center to state and federal courts. Yet that opposition has not stopped BU from proceeding with construction, and Tufts is equally determined to start building its facility. (see related story, this issue)
The Tufts and BU projects are two of three college lab initiatives with Homeland Security projects planned in recent years in Massachusetts. The third school, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, last month officially opened a 22,000-square-foot lab that includes a new expanded National Botulinum Center.
Both the BU and Tufts labs are part of a network of research centers outlined by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in 2002 that called for two National Biocontainment Laboratories — a Biosafety Level 4 facility at BU and at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston — and 13 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories, all of them Biosafety Level 3.
The NBLs and RBLs will complement and support the research activities of NIAID’s Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, according to NIAID’s Web site. They will also “be available and prepared to assist” national, state, and local public health efforts “in the event of a bioterrorism or infectious disease emergency.”
The NIAID adopted recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Panel on Bioterrorism soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a subsequent wave of anthrax attacks reignited interest in protecting the nation against bioterrorism.
To date, just one of these labs has been built nationwide: the $18-million, 33,145-square-foot regional biocontainment laboratory at Duke University. Duke’s Global Health Research Building opened last November. The other RBL and NBL facilities are either in construction or pre-construction phases, according to Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at NIAID.
Last month the University of Louisville’s Shelby campus broke ground on a $34.6-million, 37,000-square-foot regional biosafety lab, while the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey topped off its $39-million, 34,000-square-foot regional biosafety lab, which is set for completion in June 2008.
All the biocontainment labs received NIH funding through grants announced between 2003 and 2006. NIH has awarded $19.35 million to Tufts toward its lab; the university will raise the remaining $6.45 million, and said it is halfway there.
For more than two years, Tufts has sought approvals for a lab that would research naturally occurring emerging infectious diseases transmitted from animals to humans. The lab would perform original research and studies moved from labs on the school’s Grafton campus, which supports 70 researchers in the university’s Division of Infectious Disease.
The facility would include a vivarium as well as the research labs and would employ 29 people.
“We feel that type of facility is really going to help us take our veterinary expertise and make it available to the biotech community,” said Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School. She made her remarks May 5 during a panel discussion on Massachusetts’ life-sciences cluster as p[art of the conference “Bioregions: Impacting Global Discovery and Innovation,” organized by the Association of University Research Parks.
Tufts’ Grafton Science Park is a 100-acre site that is part of a decommissioned hospital property that the university plans to transform into a 702,000-square-foot life science-research campus comprising 13 four-story buildings.
“We’re building the science park to have a location for larger life sciences-company developments to occur — [tenants of] probably 20,000 square feet and higher,” Joseph McManus, associate dean at Tufts’ Cummings school, told BioRegion News before the conference. “Ideally some of those tenants will need the research infrastructure that’s on the campus, need our faculty expertise, need the RBL as a resource.
“We think it will be very beneficial to have a first building in the park and have it be a first building that can offer services for biotech companies,” McManus added.
Residents for a Safe Grafton objects to the biocontainment lab because the not-for-profit university would not pay local property taxes. To be sure, Grafton Science Park is projected to generate between $1.2 million to $2.2 million in annual taxes, depending on how much gets built and what types of tenants move in. Tufts prefers business tenants to fill the campus but would not rule out additional institutions, McManus said.
To that end, Lashmit said, Grafton’s annual town meeting is set to vote this month on designating Grafton Science Park eligible for a faster approval decision under the state’s “Chapter 43D” expedited permitting law. “It would just be another facilitative action taken by the town to try and attract some biotech firms and life science firms, with a promise we’re not going to drag our feet.”
Under a change to the law last year, 43D sites can be specific properties rather than a community at large, with local governments eligible for up to $150,000 in grants toward technical help.
Also, Residents for a Safe Grafton cite safety concerns from the community: The campus would be 3.5 miles from the Massachusetts Turnpike, 1.5 miles from two elementary schools and a middle school; and beside a commuter train station.
Carroll also said the lab is a “desperate” attempt to jump start Grafton Science Park after several years in which a potentially important tenant, IDEXX Veterinary Services, opted to join other commercial and industrial tenants at the nearby 121-acre, 675,000-square-foot CenTech Industrial Park.
“It’s a matter of [a competing science park that] has stolen a lot of the capacity and business" from Tufts. “I just see [the lab plan] as a ‘Hail Mary, let’s-get-something-in-here at all costs’ plan.”
Beside IDEXX, which bases a veterinary diagnostic lab at the park, other tenants include fiberoptics products maker Verillon, public safety software developer Information Management Corp., and the back-office operations of State Street Bank.
“It’s a matter of that park [CenTech] has stolen a lot of the capacity and business, and for whatever the reason, those individuals have had their act together,” Residents for a Safe Community’s Carroll said. “I just see [the lab plan] as a ‘Hail Mary, let’s-get-something-in-here at all costs’ plan.”
Tuft’s McManus said it’s not fair to compare Grafton Science Park and CenTech because CenTech’s tenants are more industrial, and the two parks do not compete.
“We helped [CenTech] get their first tenant,” McManus said. ”We work together to try and bring economic development to Grafton. A win in either place is a win for the town and all of us.”
Tufts already works with 30 companies carrying out infectious disease-related R&D, while another 19 shops have graduated from the school’s biotech incubator in Grafton. Tufts hopes to draw tenant companies to the science park and also develop collaborations with them.
“That’s not a condition precedent for coming into the park, but that’s a programmatic win for the school if there is that synergy,” McManus said.
The opposition is not moved. “Tufts always likes to look at the best case: This could bring jobs,” Carroll said. “I don’t feel alternative sites were necessarily considered, and I don’t feel as though the worst case was looked at. What if there was a fire there and the responders were off at another fire and the kids were all at school?”
Carroll’s group has argued Tufts would be unable to combat an accidental release of a toxin into the community, citing the hospitalization in April 2006 of five veterinary school employees for possible exposure to botulinum toxin. Tufts agreed to pay a $5,625-fine set by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, though McManus said the employees were not found to have been exposed. No community residents were affected by that incident, according to McManus.
“We improved our training of staff as a result of that, and bought enhanced employee protective equipment,” McManus said.
Tufts insists its lab would be safe and would enhance community safety. “RBLs are not a risk to public health. The risk to public health is not having these laboratories to find preventive treatments and cures for infectious diseases that are already affecting people,” McManus said.
According to Natalie Lashmit, Grafton’s town administrator, Tufts “didn’t have enough time to do the right education about the [botulinum toxin] project to the town.
Since then, Lashmit said, the town and Tufts have built closer relations through ongoing dialogue. The university agreed to pay Grafton $55,000 a year toward town services for 10 years starting in 2005, and has since then offered twice-annual emergency training to the town’s police and volunteer fire department. Tufts also supplyied Tyvek coveralls to firefighters and gave $6,000 to the police for response gear.
“There have been several seminars on economic development and biotech, all coordinated and hosted by Tufts in our municipal center and on the Tufts campus,” Lashmit said. “The public awareness is so much better. There has been quite a change in the perception of the project, and we look forward to it building out.”