State-of-the-art Research Labs
When the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or commonly know as mad cow disease) in a domestic animal was confirmed on an Alberta farm in May 2003, none of the scientists in Alberta were studying BSE, despite Alberta having the largest herd of cattle in Canada. The impact of that discovery was immediate and devastating. Estimates range from $7 billion to $11 billion in economic losses due to the BSE crisis. Fast forward to today and there are now dozens of researchers in Alberta studying BSE and other prion diseases in state-of-the-art research labs.
The Government of Alberta created the Alberta Prion Research Institute with a mandate to build the scientific capacity in Alberta. To do so, it was necessary to build research facilities that could handle infectious prion proteins. Working with them requires secure and regulated labs and specialized equipment, both of which are very expensive to build and maintain. The Alberta Prion Research Institute and the Government of Alberta partnered with Alberta post-secondary institutions and other research funding agencies to build and equip prion research facilities. Alberta universities are now home to state-of-the-art prion research facilities. These facilities are part of the reason 11 world-class researchers have moved to Alberta to do their research.
The largest infrastructure investment is the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases (Prion Centre) at the University of Alberta. When David Westaway, a leading prion researcher at the University of Toronto, was first approached in 2005 to lead the Prion Centre, it was a virtual centre with no physical space. That quickly changed when the University of Alberta donated the Brain and Aging Research Building (formerly the Environmental Engineering Building) and contributed significant funding for design and refurbishing to create the Prion Centre.
The Alberta Prion Research Institute invested $2.1 million for infrastructure and equipment and continues to provide operational support of the facility and funding to the seven researchers with labs in the Prion Centre. Dr. Westaway and the other Prion Centre researchers leveraged the initial investments from the Alberta Prion Research Institute and the University of Alberta for an additional $19.2 million from other government programs and funding agencies. The Government of Alberta invested in the refurbishing of the building and lab space through the Ministry of Advanced Education and Technology (now the Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education) and the Alberta Science and Research Investments Program.
What used to be a building with offices and routine teaching lab space was transformed into a state-of-the-art facility and one of the few research centres in the world that is certified and well-equipped to analyze all types of infectious prion proteins, including those that infect humans. The Prion Centre totals 27,000 square feet of customized lab space and houses $12 million of specialized equipment, much of it inside three enhanced biosafety level 2+ laboratory areas that total 9,000 square feet.
The Alberta Prion Research Institute has also committed funding for operational support of a new prion research facility at the University of Calgary Foothills campus. The research facility is currently being built and is expected to be fully commissioned in 2014. When completed, the dedicated prion research facility and cell culture labs will have significant impacts on the research being done in Calgary.
The Alberta Prion Research Institute is committed to the continuing support of research labs at Alberta post-secondary institutions. The scientists here continue to do groundbreaking research and build the scientific capacity of prion and protein misfolding diseases in Alberta. They have the ability to do their world-class research because of the state-of-the-art research facilities. Judd Aiken is one of those 11 world-class researchers who moved to Alberta. He is now based at the Prion Centre at the University of Alberta. “Most labs can’t dedicate this much equipment to be placed inside containment to do prion research. We don’t have that issue at the Prion Centre. Working with state-of-the-art equipment inside containment allows us to take our research to a whole new level.”
BY CINDY LIEU