You can’t figure out how to detect, treat or eradicate a disease unless you understand it. That’s why you’ll find everything from Staphylococcus aureus to Plasmodium falciparum taking up residence in our Biology Lab. It sounds alarming, but luckily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has clearly defined protocol to ensure biosafety laboratories like ours stay safe, know their limitations and keep those nasty bugs where they belong.
Scientists use biosafety labs to study infectious and toxic materials. These state-of-the-art labs are designed not only to protect researchers from contamination, but also to prevent microorganisms from entering the environment. There are four biosafety levels (BSL) that define proper laboratory techniques, safety equipment, and design, depending on the types of biological agents being studied. The biosafety level is determined by just how nasty the agents you’re working with are, and the level of biocontainment precaution needed to keep them under control.
BSL-1 laboratories are used to study agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adult humans. The work is generally conducted on open bench tops using basic safety procedures. A typical BSL-1 lab is a high school biology class room. BSL-1 labs do not need to be separated from the rest of the building, nor require special containment equipment or facility design.
BSL-2 labs are used to study moderate-risk agents that pose a danger if accidentally inhaled, swallowed or exposed to the skin. Safety measures include access controls, specialized training for laboratory employees, personal protective equipment such as gloves and eye wear as well as biosafety cabinets, hand-washing sinks and processes for decontamination of waste material. All procedures in which infectious aerosols or splashes may be created must be conducted in biosafety cabinets. A common example of a BSL-2 lab is a hospital laboratory and the type of lab we have here at Intellectual Ventures.
BSL-3 labs are used to study agents, various bacteria, parasites and viruses, that can be transmitted through the air and cause serious or potentially lethal disease but for which treatments exist. Examples include Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Bacillus anthracis, Chlamydophila psittaci, SARS coronavirus, and Salmonella typhi. Research precautions include those indicated for BSL-2 labs as well as respiratory protection, showers for entering and exiting the facility, and specialized ventilation and decontamination systems.
BSL-4 labs are used to study agents that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease for which no treatment is available, such as small pox, Lassa Fever, Ebola virus, and Argentine hemorrhagic fevers. Anyone who’s seen movies like Outbreak or Contagion are familiar with the full bodied, air-supplied space suits required here. Although the work scientists do in these labs is usually far less harrowing or prone to accidents than shown in the movies, the utmost precaution is taken in BSL-4 labs. In addition to all of the BSL-3 safety regulations and the full body suits BSL-4 labs must have air-tight door seals on all doors, a segregated air supply with HEPA filters and must occupy a safe, isolated zone within a larger building.