In early February, thousands of volunteers in Monrovia, Liberia, signed up for the first large-scale human clinical trial of Ebola vaccines. A successful vaccine would be instrumental in stopping a virus that caused a worldwide fervor last year, infecting at least 20,000 people when a major epidemic spread throughout West Africa. In Monrovia, a coastal town of about 1 million, trial participants will receive a shot containing one of the vaccines or a placebo, and be monitored for side effects or reactions over the course of a year or so.
What those volunteers likely don't know is that one of the vaccines originated under the research program of Dr. Heinz Feldmann, who is currently chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a facility occupying 36 acres in a quiet residential part of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Valley. In Feldmann's department, the Lab of Virology, he studies highly lethal pathogens in a secure setting.
"We are among a few programs among the U.S. and worldwide, just a handful, maybe two or three handfuls of programs, that have always concentrated on these rare diseases," he says. "That's our mission, that's why we're operating [at] high containment."
While the American media panic over Ebola has subsided, the disease has by no means disappeared. In early March, the World Health Organization marked a milestone of 10,000 recorded deaths from the illness. As new cases continue to crop up in West Africa, Feldmann and a team of internationally trained scientists keep hard at work unlocking the secrets of the pathogen and other diseases like it. Simply put, their continued efforts hold the potential to save lives around the world.
Numbers denote a research facility's security and safety settings, from level 1, comparable to a high school science lab, to 4, which is afforded to the most dangerous and exotic pathogens on earth, like Ebola. Very few labs in the world are equipped with Biosafety Level 4 protections, and Hamilton is home to the only BSL 4 lab in western North America.
Even entering the BSL 4 lab requires a year of training in proper safety procedures. Researchers don one-piece hooded suits, hook up to ventilation hoses and wear three pairs of gloves while working with samples that are kept in cabinets with a separate air flow. All cuffs are triple duct-taped to keep suits air-tight. The entire building's negative pressure airflow features redundant vent systems filtered by layers of HEPA screens, ensuring that if a microscopic pathogen somehow becomes airborne in the lab, it won't be able to make its way outside.
In a separate building, RML has a mock lab where new technicians get trained and visitors can see what it's like to wear the claustrophobic biohazard suits. Inside the helmet, the whooshing ventilation system makes it difficult to hear anything, and suits contain radio intercoms so researchers can chat with each other.
On a recent day inside the training lab, Dr. Vincent Munster, an ecologist-investigator who Feldmann invited to work at RML, demonstrates how he wriggles into and out of the suit in minutes, and how he's learned to deftly maneuver syringes and test tubes through several pairs of gloves. "It's very structured, there's not much that can go wrong," he says. Once he's in the lab, he can work for about five hours at a time before he's required to take off the suit and decontaminate in a 15-minute shower process. On busy days, he might suit up four to five times.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
The rest of the RML campus has a multicultural, collegiate feel, with stately brick buildings and manicured lawns, and staff strolling around wearing street clothes and IDs dangling from lanyards. Conference rooms are equipped with high-tech SmartBoards and small bottles of hand sanitizer.
The BSL 4 lab is a relatively new addition to the RML campus, but scientists have been studying deadly diseases in this scenic mountain town for nearly a century. RML was founded as a site to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever, also called black measles, a tick-borne disease that plagued settlers of the Bitterroot Valley. In the early 1900s, some of the pioneering researchers studying Rocky Mountain fever worked out of tents and woodsheds. They also drew the ire of locals with their sometimes-offbeat ways of combatting the illness, like walking cattle through harsh baths of disinfectant.
In the mid-1920s, when the Montana Legislature appropriated funds to build a permanent lab in Hamilton, some residents protested, fearing diseased ticks would escape from the facility. Their concerns led to the construction of a small ditch around the research building because "ticks, it was supposed, could not swim the moat," according to a RML brochure. (The moat was never filled with water, and a historic placard currently marks where it used to be.)