Issue 5, 2012. October-November



Georgia will become a regional center for advanced biological research with the long-awaited commencement of activities at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research.

Charlie Fletcher

The Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, named for the U.S. Senator, was built to bolster global health security through the identification of infectious disease threats and the development of vaccines and other interventions to mitigate those threats.

Georgia was a natural partner for this effort, says Nata Avaliani, Georgia's leader of the Global Disease Detection Regional Center.

"There has been an aspiration in this country to play the role of a hub, a leader in the region in certain areas," she said.

"Because Georgia is endemic for some of the pathogens for potential biological threat, there has been ongoing research studying plague, tularemia, anthrax and other diseases. This combination of factors and also the very strong partnership with the U.S. government that exists in a number of other sectors, contributed to the idea of establishing the center here."

Avaliani added that the center would also be a safer, more secure repository for pathogens that had been stored at the National Center for Disease Control. The new facility will allow more sophisticated research on these and other emerging pathogens.

The facility boasts a state of the art biocontainment laboratory that has no equal anywhere in Georgia or the region, she stressed.

"The center provides Georgia with a great opportunity to be on the front line of this global health effort and also establish a long-standing and very important cooperation for the Georgian public health system with U.S. institutions, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and other partner organizations that will help establish these capacities in Georgia," Avaliani said.

Identification and Prevention

The overall purpose of the center is to prevent and mitigate global epidemics by working in concert with the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO's International Health Regulations require renewed cooperation and coordination between countries for full and effective implementation

The original partnership started with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program building the laboratory. As the testing and validation of the laboratory concludes, the partnerships between the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health and various partner organizations, including the U.S. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are expanding. Both the U.S. Army's medical research unit and the U.S. CDC will be tenants within the facility.

But the faculty itself is Georgian controlled by a board of governors chaired by the Georgian Prime Minister and comprising representation from the Georgian ministries of Health, Agriculture, Defense, Finance, and Education & Science.

With the completion of Georgia's center, there will be10 such CDC regional centers worldwide. The facilities are organized in partnership with the U.S. CDC Division of Global Disease Detection and Emergency Response.

The other nine regional centers are in Thailand, Kenya, China, Guatemala, Egypt, Kazakhstan, India, South Africa and Bangladesh. Each of these labs works closely with Walter Reed, the U.S. CDC, and with each other to develop vaccines and other therapeutics and to provide information about infectious diseases of military and public health importance, according to an official with the Georgian unit of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which has been responsible for the development, construction, testing and validation of the facility.

The initial ground breaking for the center occurred in 2004 and construction of the 8,000 square meter facility began in 2006. Most major construction was completed in 2010. It is not operational yet, however.

Because of the complexity of the center's laboratories, extensive testing and validation is required before much of the facility can be fully utilized. Final validation of the Biosafety Level 3 biocontainment labs is expected to be completed this winter.

Currently there are 15 full- time employees at the center and approximately 50 consultants conducting validation and testing, according to Vakhtang Berishvili, the center's deputy director.

The center's small staff is currently developing policies and procedures. "Our science people are now thinking about what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Our admin people are working to create infrastructures and systems," he said. By 2014, the facility is expected to employ more than 200 people, including scientists, laboratory technicians and administrative staff.

First Project: Genomic Mapping

Although the center will not be fully operational for some time, officials expect to begin tackling some projects as early as October, including the genomic mapping of a bacteriophage active against anthrax that was developed by long-time Georgian research laboratory, George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology.

Revaz Adamia, the institute's director, is optimistic about the potential the center holds for Georgia.

"In general, the idea of creating this center is very good. Initially it was created as a center of excellence for detecting any kind of biohazard in this region of the world, natural or artificial. But now its tasking has been changed. It's now more oriented toward public health, and it is more oriented toward scientific work," he said.

"I personally like that more emphasis is being placed on scientific work rather than pure epidemiological surveillance. I think that it is vitally necessary for this country to have several good scientific centers where high-level experimental work can be done."

When fully operational, the center will be capable of performing expanded gene sequencing, which will be crucial for today's basic biological research, noted Avaliani.

"There are no borders for infections and for public health threats, or for biological threats," she said. "So countries should be equipped with the capacity, both technical and human resources capacity to be able to detect, report and respond to outbreaks in a timely manner. The center provides Georgia with a great opportunity to be on the front line of this global health effort."