Mobile lab expands capacity of animal disease diagnostics

In the event of a disease outbreak, a rapid, massive response by health officials is critical -- even if the patients are animals. That's what makes a new mobile diagnostic laboratory developed by the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory important, said its executive director, Dr. Lelve Gayle.

The laboratory housed in a trailer about the size of a recreational vehicle will enable the diagnostic laboratory to quickly expand its capability to respond to an animal disease outbreak, Gayle said.

Twelve livestock diseases not presently in the United States are of grave concern to animal health officials, Gayle said. Some of these diseases including H5N1 avian influenza can be transmitted humans.

The new mobile lab can be hauled to most regions of Texas with a 1-ton pickup and be ready to process blood and tissue samples for animal diseases within 24-48 hours. The samples are then sent to the main laboratory in College Station for testing.

The trailer comes with a biosafety level 3 rating, which means it had to pass stringent standards to keep disease organisms from escaping into the environment. It is the only known mobile lab of its kind, Gayle said.

The mobile unit adds extra capacity to what the diagnostic lab is already able to do.

"It essentially doubles our testing area," Gayle said.

Each year the diagnostic lab performs thousands of tests at its facilities in College Station, Amarillo, Center and Gonzales, Gayle said. The laboratory in College Station because it also carries a biosafety level 3 rating tests for what are considered high-consequence diseases. Those are the diseases, such as foot-and-mouth, that are thought to be more dangerous and virulent than other animal diseases. The latter three labs test routine samples. For example, the labs test for causes of livestock abortion or for parasitic diseases in pets, or they culture samples for pathogenic bacteria.

Moving the capabilities of the College Station laboratory to the location of a disease outbreak would cost thousands of dollars and a tremendous amount of manpower, Gayle said.

"It is more expensive (to take people to the field) than moving 'triaged' testing samples from the field to the lab," he said.

The trailer can be parked at any of the four diagnostic laboratories and hooked up electrically and electronically.

After blood and tissue samples arrive at the mobile laboratory, they are placed identified as to origin and their packaging disinfected. The samples are placed in sealed tubes and sent to the main testing lab in College Station.

The mobile lab has showers for lab technicians entering and leaving, a centrifuge, a laboratory ventilation hood, computers and telephones. It is equipped to send data electronically, wherever it is set up. The laboratory's air is recirculated so airborne viruses are pulled into the hood, which contains high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

Gayle and diagnostic lab disease experts could not find another mobile unit of this type, so they designed it themselves. Although in retrospect, some improvements could be made, he said, "I feel certain this is going to more than meet our expectations."

If a disease is suspected, laboratory testing is required, Gayle said. If one animal in the herd shows signs of certain highly pathogenic disease organisms, all animals in the herd have to be tested even if the rest don't show clinical signs, he said.

The disease experts at the diagnostic lab are the "detectives" who "determine if there's a crime being committed or not," he said.

Gayle's goal is for the laboratory in College Station to be ready to test samples within two hours, seven days a week.

"No other place in the U.S. can do that," he said. "The key to winning these (disease) wars is being quick and aggressive."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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