Lab mishap shows risks of working with dangerous bugs

September 15, 2011

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Despite precautions, a recent mishap shows research on nasty pathogens is still

In the most recent installment of Clever Apes, I got a taste of what it’s like to work at the highly secure Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory, dealing with extremely unsavory bugs like plague and anthrax (listen here). I saw all the steps researchers take to protect themselves from infection: respirator, multiple airlocks and air filters, biosafety cabinets, full gown and two pairs of gloves, etc. The protocols seemed to make the risk of any contact with the bugs, which are generally present only in tiny amounts anyway, pretty remote. But, as lab director Howard Shuman put it, “We do everything we can possibly imagine to reduce risk to people who are working. That doesn't mean the risk is zero.”

A recent occurrence at Ricketts’ sister lab, the Cummings Life Science Center on the University of Chicago campus (the university also runs the Ricketts facility), drives this home. A researcher there was infected with the pathogen Bacillus cereus, and required hospitalization and surgery. This is not the worst germ on earth – it’s a common cause of food poisoning. But it happens to be exactly what Ya-Ting Wang, the researcher we spied on in the BSL-3 suite in the story, was working on. Don’t worry, she’s fine.

A researcher handles bacillus cereus in a biosafety cabinet at Ricketts laborat

But the important point here is that the Cummings center researcher would have been using the same protocols while working on B. cereus as the scientists at Ricketts (By the way, B. cereus is considered a level-2 pathogen, but the university has a policy of using the higher-security protocol with it). That means that all the same levels of redundancy and precaution would have been present, and still a likely contamination happened. We can all be thankful it was B. cereus and not something much worse like anthrax.

So how could this happen? I talked with Conrad Gilliam, dean for research and graduate education at the university's Biological Sciences Division about this.

Hear our interview here:

The investigation is ongoing, but Gilliam shared a number of working assumptions: 1) This was likely a lab-acquired infection, though that’s not confirmed yet; 2) the contamination probably came from a spill by another investigator (meaning researcher), probably without that person realizing it; 3) the patient (identified as a female researcher in published reports) probably touched the spill, which would have had to be at a high concentration to ultimately cause infection, and 4) the patient would have had to touch the contaminated gloved hand to an open wound – which is to say, she likely scratched an itch under her gown or something. All of this is still somewhat speculative, but Gilliam says that’s the best guess right now.

The relevant section of the Cummings lab has been shut down since the end of August and isn’t likely to reopen until at least next week, after which it could take weeks to get back to normal. Meanwhile, the university has moved all the B. cereus research, as well work on similarly classed bugs like Staphylococcus aureus (as in MRSA) off campus and into the Ricketts lab. But as we see here, wherever it's studied, a little breach in protocol like scratching an itch is all it takes to upend the most carefully conceived protections.