Researchers to study live virus that causes COVID-19 at reopened U of C biosafety lab

The U of C's Biosafety Level 3 lab, which is located in the Snyder Institute of Chronic Diseases, was once used to study bioterrorism pathogens after 9/11.

Biosafety Level 3 lab can safely house SARS-CoV-2 as researchers prepare to trace its path through mice

Why researchers joined together to reopen this special U of C biosafety lab

3 years ago
Duration 4:16
The University of Calgary's Biosafety Level 3 Facility that studied bio-terrorism after the 9/11 attacks is open again, but now focuses on COVID-19 and what drugs can treat it.

A specialized lab at the University of Calgary is reopening to develop research into treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

The U of C's Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab, which is located in the Snyder Institute of Chronic Diseases, was once used to study potential bioterrorism pathogens after 9/11.

  • WATCH | Take a look inside the lab in the video above

It has been closed for about a decade after the researcher using it retired, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted its reopening. It was funded in part by both Joan Snyder, who founded of the Snyder Institute, and the Government of Canada.

It will now be used to study SARS-CoV-2 — the pathogen that leads to the development of COVID-19 — and researchers say the facility will allow them to work with the live virus, enabling experiments that previously were not possible. 

"We're hoping to be able to grow [the virus], to study it, put it into cells," said Dr. Paul Kubes, the lead for the Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment research strategy at the U of C. 

"[Reopening the facility] was the only way for the University of Calgary to do some of the research that people wanted to do, and so we decided that it was important enough."

Rebuilding the facility

Biosafety Level 3 is the biocontainment level needed to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a lab.

It requires a special venting system to ensure pathogens can't escape, and says the U of C, its facility includes a separate ventilation and heating system.

It is also pressurized so that all air flows inward, and does not move externally from inside of the containment facility.

According to Kubes, reopening the lab and ensuring it met these standards took about 20 people working very hard since April, but a sense of urgency amidst the pandemic spurred the build forward.

"It's sort of like closing your house for 10 years and then opening it up. You find that the taps aren't working very well, the air conditioner's gone," said Kubes.

"And that's what happened with this facility. There were a lot of filters that weren't working, seals that weren't sealing … so we had to rebuild a lot of the things to get to where we are now."

Creeping into the bloodstream

Some of the projects will involve infecting mice to try to understand why immune systems respond differently to the virus — and why that response is abnormal in people who develop severe symptoms, said Dr. Jennifer Corcoran, who will be growing the virus for the majority of the studies done in the lab.

"This type of discovery research, where you try to understand how a virus works and try to understand how our body responds to fight off viral pathogens, is fundamental to be able to develop new therapies without doing any harm to the patient," said Corcoran.

"If you don't really understand what's happening, the danger is that we would use a therapy that would do more harm than good."

Dr. Paul Kubes, left, and Dr. Jennifer Corcoran, right, will use the lab to conduct experiments that include trying to determine how COVID-19 impacts the immune system and moves through the body. (Julie Debekjak/CBC)

While there are other BSL-3 labs around the world, Kubes said this one is set apart by its microscopes, which are so powerful that they can see through living tissue. This allows researchers to study how the virus enters and travels through the body.

A high-priority experiment will involve putting the virus into the lungs, Kubes said. The Calgary researchers believe that from there, it is able to creep into the bloodstream, and then into vital organs. 

"Our … suspicion is that this virus sneaks into the blood vessels, and this is why some people have strokes, some people have heart problems, some people have kidney problems," Kubes said.

"And so [Corcoran] has a virus that actually glows when it goes inside cells. It actually tells us, 'This is the cell that's infected.'"

With the ability to visualize where the virus goes and what it is doing, Kubes said, the researchers can then begin to experiment with disrupting its process with different drugs.

"We actually think being able to see what's happening will allow us to test the right drugs, see if they work, and then go and test them in patients," he said.

For the good of the world

Months after COVID-19 came to Alberta — and with a vaccine likely to be at least a year away — it is difficult to imagine that, one day, the researchers will busy themselves with something else in the BSL-3 lab.

But there are numerous pathogens that are becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs used to treat them — tuberculosis, in particular, Kubes said.

And so when COVID-19 is no longer the active threat it is now, the lab will stay busy, he said.

In the meantime, they are focused, along with researchers around the world, on tackling the virus that started the pandemic. The process, according to Corcoran, has been surprisingly collaborative.

"I have never seen the scientific community and the virology community mobilize and come together in such a way … for the good of the world, basically, to try to understand how this virus works," Corcoran said.

"We want to be able to do our part, and to be able to contribute, to increasing the knowledge about this virus as fast as possible. And so having this [BSL-3] facility is allowing us to do that … which will make the research move much faster."

With files from Julie Debeljak