Biolab Is Studying Covid’s Lung Effects

The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories on Albany Street has been studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus since the pandemic began. Intended for studying deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus and Zika virus, NEIDL started its research on COVID-19 to understand the disease better.

The building has a biosafety level 4 lab that studies the effects of the virus on artificially grown lung replicas. Biosafety levels are ranges of safety protocols and containment levels required in labs. “The virus severely affects human lungs. So, we use lung cells grown in a lab to study the effects of the virus on them,” said Dr. Ronald B. Corley, director of NEIDL.

The NEIDL works in collaboration with the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CreM) for its COVID-19 research on lung cells. The CReM is a scientific research facility that is responsible for making the lung replicas which are then infected with the virus by the NEIDL. “First, we use these models to figure out how human lungs respond to the virus. Then, we use these same cells to screen drugs that might be effective against COVID-19,” said Dr. Darrell N. Kotton, director of CReM.

Adam J. Hume, a senior researcher at NEIDL, analyzed the lung cells' response to the infection. “We were able to identify important pathways in the lungs that allow COVID-19 infection. Then, we were able to identify drugs that inhibit those pathways and block the infection,” he said.

Due to the severity of the virus, NEIDL has rigorous safety measures needed for its workers and the community outside. “We have all the standard operating procedures and filtration systems in the building. So, the chance of the virus getting out of the building is negligible,” noted Dr. Corley.

“COVID-19 requires BSL-3 precautions,” said Elke Mühlberger, director of Integrated Science Services at NEIDL. Mühlberger noted that a BSL-4 lab at NEIDL is safer for handling the virus when it infects the lung cells.

She also said they wear suits that are completely encapsulated. “We get air from a hose, so we don’t inhale air from the lab.” There is also a chemical shower between the lab and the outside world. "Every time you leave the lab, you have to pass through this chemical shower that lasts for eight minutes. If there is any virus on the suit, it gets destroyed by the chemical. Then, you take a body shower after that,” she added.

“There is also negative pressure in the laboratory,” said Mühlberger. She believes this is important because everything is sucked into the lab, and nothing can get out if one opens the door to the lab.

Adding to that, there is also positive pressure in the biosafety suit they are wearing. “If there is a hole in the suit, the air will blow out, and nothing will get inside,” said Hume.

They wear three pairs of gloves along with the suit, one of which is attached to the suit. Materials are inactivated before they are brought outside, meaning they have strict protocols that require the researchers to test the materials before getting them out. “All materials are then submitted to units like the Boston Public Health Commission, so it's not just us deciding if it's safe,” added Mühlberger.

Dr. Corley highlighted that NEIDL has a safe environment for the individuals working there, their families, and the communities.