Situated in one of the more isolated—and beautiful—parts of the lower-48 American states, Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML)—part of the National Institute of Health (NIH) Intramural Research Program—operates in Hamilton, Montana. In a small but thriving community situated in the Bitterroot valley, nestled between the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains, the entire area is surrounded by national forest and wilderness area. These parts wouldn’t seem to be at the center of a war against an invisible pathogen—But they are. In fact, RML is well known for conducting research on maximum containment pathogens such as Ebola. Their focus of late has been all SARS-CoV-2.
An Elite Infectious Diseases Investigational Unit
Recently, NBC Montana updated the public on the flurry of activity occurring in this Biosafety level 4 laboratories—one of the few in the United States. With an emphasis on studying infectious diseases threats, the group of scientists and investigators at this government lab have been comparing how environment, or intermediate surroundings, affect both SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS virus (behind the disease in 2003).
RML recently contributed to a larger study led by NIH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of California Los Angeles and Princeton University scientists—the results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The lab revealed that COVID-19 could live on surfaces for up to a few days.
Other COVID-19 Studies
Dr. Emmie De Wit and team have been conducting studies investigating remdesivir. While testing the experimental drug in non-human primate models, the RML team “found that this drug had significant affect in ameliorating the course and severity of COVID-19 infections in non-human primates, if given early enough during the course of the disease” reported Dr. Marshall Bloom, associate director for scientific management. Although not a clinical study up in Hamilton at RML, Bloom commented, “a number of clinical trials are going on around the country assessing the usefulness of Remdesivir. So I feel this is very encouraging data that will hopefully be confirmed in the clinical studies.”
Another RML group focuses on the national shortages of N95 respirators used by health care workers—and intended to be used only once. Research in Hamilton evidences the ability to reuse this class of personal protective equipment (PPE) thanks to the use of vaporized hydrogen peroxide. According to associate director Bloom, the study reveals the importance, seemingly pragmatic, of being able to reuse the respirators—hospitals and health care facilities can go through supplies very quickly leaving shortages, which in the COVID-19 pandemic could have deadly consequences.
Brief Overview of RML
RML’s first building was completed in 1928, but research at this spectacular location goes back considerably longer—where scientists studied Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Organized by Laboratories
RML is organized into three (3) laboratories, each of which has a distinguished scientist as its laboratory chief and a number of individual research groups that study specific infectious agents, like Q fever, chlamydia, Lyme disease, plague, salmonella, prion diseases, and tickborne encephalitis. The laboratories include the Laboratory of Bacteriology; Laboratory of Persistent Viral Diseases and the Laboratory of Virology.
The campus today includes about 30 buildings on 36 acres of land and employs 450.
First NIH Facility to House BSL-2, BSL-3, & BSL-4 laboratory space
The RML Integrated Research Facility, which opened in 2008, is the first NIH facility of its kind to house BSL-2, BSL-3, & BSL-4 laboratory space in one building. For an overview of Biosafety lab levels from the CDC, see the link. This facility, due to the way it was constructed—based on rigorous engineering standards—enables researchers to study priority pathogens in the area of biodefense: labeled as Category A, B, or C agents by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the safest and most secure environment possible.
Genomics Core Unit
RML includes the Genomics Core Unit offering investigators cutting-edge technology and consultation to researchers in the areas of gene sequencing and gene expression. Thanks to these advanced technologies, researchers tap into rapid, easy-to-understand results—potentially enabling faster identification of potential vaccine candidates, diagnostics, etc.
Lead Research/investigator (discussed in article)
Dr. Emmie De Wit, PhD, Chief, Molecular Pathogenesis Unit