COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Texas A&M University on Monday dedicated the first element of its new national biodefense center where researchers are to work on strategies to respond to bioterrorism and swiftly develop vaccines for a pandemic or some chemical, biological or nuclear threat.
The A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing is the first of five facilities being developed by the school's partnership with the federal government, other academic institutions and private firms. It is one of three such national centers. Others are in Maryland and North Carolina.
"This is a problem solving endeavor," Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives of the Texas A&M University System, said. "These are not minimal problems. These are big important problems for the country. And we're going to bring everybody to the table we can ... to solve the problems and protect public health."
Texas A&M System officials have described the project as the largest federal investment in the state since NASA in the 1960s. Texas has committed $40 million to the nearly $300 million project on the A&M campus in College Station. The federal government is contributing $176 million.
"What this center will provide is not only the ability to take research and technology and make it into products but also become honor and duty," Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said.
The A&M System, which includes 11 universities and 120,000 students, has projected the long-term investment in the billions of dollars under a contract that could last 25 years with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Robinson, joined by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and top school officials, cut a ceremonial Aggie maroon ribbon to mark the opening.
The center is tasked to use what A&M describes as "rapid, nimble and flexible approaches" to come up with vaccines against pandemic influenza; devise accelerated methods to develop those vaccines to licensure; develop therapies for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats; and train "the next generation of professionals" to sustain the nation's capability in those areas.
Officials showed off labs where research already is focused on cancer-fighting drugs and where students can learn how to use the latest research equipment.
A unique warehouse-size structure where the air is filtered to remove microscopic particles and where people entering labs don protective garb to minimize what officials called "bioburden" will hold up to 20 mobile "clean rooms" the size of trailer homes costing up from $750,000 apiece. Six of the labs, which can float on a cushion of air like a puck on an air hockey table, already are in operation.
If a pandemic or bioterror attack occurs, the place is designed to suspend its day-to-day work, be reconfigured easily and focus entirely on finding and making a vaccine to combat the threat. The goal is to provide a vaccine in 12 weeks, about half the time it took researchers in 2009 to address the H1N1 — or swine flu — pandemic. As many as 50 million doses would then be manufactured within four months.
"Research is very important," Robinson said. "It is the lifeblood of what we do in America. Here this center has to do more than research. It has to produce. And that's a real dilemma one has going forward, when there is a real attack on America, be it Mother Nature or other terrorists. And you have to it and have to do it now."
Giroir said Texas A&M has already seen potential to apply the work to more general public health needs such as personalized cancer vaccines. He said the work "will have a profound transformational effect on the rest of pharmaceutical development."
"We're really privileged to be part of that," he said.
Texas A&M is partnering with Belgium-based pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline's facility in Pennsylvania and more than 20 other public and private research organizations, companies and academic institutions from across the U.S.
In 2010, President Barack Obama said he wanted the country to develop a new plan for a better and quicker response to bioterrorism threats and attacks. The move came after the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation gave the government a failing grade for its efforts to prepare for and respond to a biological attack.