New barrier facility critical to research growth

Animal care technician Bobbie Whalen (L) talks with Drs. Hélène Paradis and Robert Gendron outside the barrier facility.

A new Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) Barrier Facility, funded this year by a $279,609 business development grant from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), is now up and running at Memorial University in the Health Sciences Centre.

“This facility is critical because it allows state-of-the-art disease-free housing of experimental animals used in key aspects of medical biotechnology research,” said Dr. Hélène Paradis, Basic Medical Sciences. She was responsible for designing and coordinating the installation of the barrier and currently oversees and coordinates its operation as well as training staff and students who require access to the barrier.

“Without the SPF barrier, we can't perform fundamental basic science research in transgenic animals since the health of our transgenic animals could be compromised by the threat of exogenous pathogens,” she said. “Diseases caused by these pathogens could interfere with the interpretation of our basic science research and could invalidate our results.”

The SPF barrier project was initially spearheaded by a group of researchers from Basic Medical Sciences and Pharmacy. With the assistance of Margaret Miller, marketing manager for the Faculty of Medicine, a proposal was put together and submitted to ACOA by Dr. Christopher Loomis, vice-president of research for Memorial, and Drs. Paradis and Robert Gendron of Basic Medical Sciences.

Dr. Gendron said the SPF barrier is greatly facilitating the university's research capacity. “It has already attracted new faculty and will benefit our ability to train and retain high quality personnel and students.”

The barrier also has important economic benefits. Without it, researchers like Drs. Gendron and Paradis could not perform key studies that facilitate partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry. For example, portions of their work on the role of Tubedown-1 protein in blindness is patented to facilitate the development of drugs based upon the biological mechanism of action of Tubedown-1.

“The SPF barrier is critical to allow us to perform key proof-of-principal research and pre-clinical trials of Tubedown-1 based drugs in disease models in mice,” said Dr. Gendron. “It provides disease-free housing of our experimental animals so that our research is not compromised by diseases that would be present in the same animals in standard non-barrier housing conditions.”

Dr. Gendron said that the whole province benefits from the SPF barrier. “Funding from industry will allow marketing of our locally-developed technologies as preventative and therapeutic treatments, clinical diagnostic kits, medical devices and new drugs for treating debilitating and life threatening diseases. Marketing of our technologies will generate revenues, portions of which would be channelled back through formal licensing agreements to Memorial University and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to support the local and provincial economy.”

The SPF barrier works through a system of environmental and air isolation and filtering which ensures that the space within the barrier is maintained free of airborne debris and pathogens such as dust particles, bacteria, viruses, fungi, pollens and yeasts, all of which can cause diseases in research animals. The space consists of a series of clear vinyl wall sealed rooms each containing high capacity HEPA filter units that replace the air with sterile air about 100 times every hour.

“The rooms remain differentially pressurized in order to control what air enters and exits the rooms,” explained Dr. Paradis. “A barrier room looks like a portable military hospital surgical suite and contains air that is as pure as a hospital operating room.”

Like an operating room, those who work in the SPF barrier must be intensively trained and wear sterilized gowns, face masks, bonnets, shoe covers and latex gloves. “An ‘aseptic' standard operating technique must be rigorously followed at all times when working in the barrier,” she said. “This involves a series of steps during all procedures to minimize contamination of workspace and animals.”

Dr. Gendron commented that it is no bowl of cherries to work inside the barrier. “The personal protective gear is hot and moving around within the small enclosures is dicey. However, the effort and sweat is worth it since the animals can be kept 100 per cent pathogen free. In fact these animals are cleaner than us.”

Inside the barrier, one highly-specialized room is designated and configured as the quarantine room. Researchers often receive mice from other labs and collaborators, and they use the quarantine area to ensure that the mice they receive are pathogen-free. “The quarantine room consists of a negative pressure workspace enclosed within a larger positive pressure space to ensure that any possible contaminants from suspect animals are not spread to the rest of the barrier,” said Dr. Gendron. “The negative space has a specialized workstation which allows the isolated handling of any animals and caging materials that are suspected of being contaminated. When animals in the quarantine area are verified to be pathogen free by testing, they are transferred to other housing areas within the barrier.”

The SPF barrier is operated by a newly-recruited and highly-trained animal care technician, Bobbie Whalen, and animal care pathologist Jennifer Edwards.

Drs. Gendron and Paradis say that getting the funding for the SPF barrier and designing and implementing it was a lot of work, but the payoffs are very large. “We now have a barrier facility which is similar to others at centres like Toronto , Montreal or Vancouver ,” said Dr. Paradis. “This barrier facility places MUN on the map in terms of state-of-the-art housing facilities for transgenic research animals.”

The two researchers stressed that in addition to ACOA, many people at Memorial were key to supporting the success of the barrier project, among them research vice-president Dr. Loomis, Drs. Karen Mearow and Bodil Larsen (present and past associate deans of Basic Medical Sciences), the overall and continuing support of the Faculty of Medicine, the staff of Animal Care Services, and the staff of Facilities Management. “This project and its success reflects that good things can happen when people work together as a coordinated group,” said Dr. Gendron.